Broadway’s introduction to Aaron Sorkin’s 2019 adaptation of Harper Lee’s literary classic cites a survey “on books that have most affected people’s lives [in which] To Kill a Mockingbird was second only to the Bible.” In May of this year, that same blockbuster became “the top-grossing American play in Broadway history.”
The story’s collective renown is indisputable: it has won a Pulitzer, some Oscars, a Broadway play, and the minds and hearts of America. Charming, tender, and inspirational, To Kill a Mockingbird is a seminal American classic with virtually no rival in modern national literature.
Up to this point, I’m on board with the rest of sentimental America.
But my concern with it has less to do with its entertainment or cultural value and more to do with its exaltation as a profound and serious examination of American racism, for to suggest that Mockingbird is an introspective exegesis of America’s Original Sin is not only misleading and inappropriate, but dangerous.
Despite its reputation, Mockingbird fails to adequately address institutional racism in America.
I realize that such blasphemy against this literary gospel is tantamount to treason, but I invite you to set aside our musings of idyllic childhood storybooks and to come to terms with the fact that despite its reputation, Mockingbird fails to adequately address institutional racism in America.
Its popularity aside, it has some serious shortcomings. First, it’s preachy, and its moral isn’t exactly electrifying. The novel’s conclusion doesn’t celebrate America’s imminent conquest over racism, but instead, solemnly accepts the fact that in this horrifically unjust and bigoted society, you can still find a handful of good white folk.
That’s not much to celebrate, and it shouldn’t make us feel very good. Especially not in 2019, when the very same race dynamics of that novel’s era are not only persistent, but flagrant. It should alarm us that this book’s relevance has endured for so long; evidently, little has changed since 1960.
It should alarm us that this book’s relevance has endured for so long; evidently, little has changed since 1960.
Second, it’s childish. The triviality of its imagery—a white rabid dog sniped John Wayne-style by the Maycomb-Christ Atticus Finch, an Alabama daughter-raping redneck named Robert E. Lee, and a town spook with the ingenious and highly imaginative name of “Boo”—undermines the seriousness of the subject at hand. Superficial caricatures can do wonders in Aesop’s Fables and The Three Little Pigs, but this is American Racism, folks. It’s more complicated than that.
It’s easy to hail the Finches, despise the Ewells, and pity Tom Robinson because the novel’s portrayal of these non-dimensional archetypes is so stereotypical that the reader is left with no choice. Even an admitted bigot could not openly condone the likes of “Robert E. Lee” Ewell (Really, Harper? Layin’ it on a little thick there?) over the poor, pitiful invalid Tom Robinson.
The unrelenting applause over Mockingbird only serves to reflect the absence—indeed evasion—of genuine race dialogue in America.
Which brings me to my third point: Mockingbird‘s characters are so oversimplified that it comes off racist in its own right. It’s just plain wrong to suggest that racist America can be summed up as simply “The Ewells.” Sure, the stereotypical Trump-supporting “deplorable” could be one stereotype of racism, but so can the professor who won’t be bothered with Mexican male students because, as research suggests, they’re least likely to earn a college degree; so is the concerned father who won’t have his daughter driving anywhere near “Detroit;” so is the uncanny correlation between insurance rates and the agency’s statistical determination of “risk;” so is the continuous surge of suburban communities in hyper-flight; so is an electorate of educated Congressfolk who render themselves mute as the President of the United States dismisses the terrorism of white supremacists.
Conversely, the African American experience is more complex than that of Maycomb’s blacks. Racism isn’t just po’ ole’ Tom Robinson; it’s Ellison’s invisibility when the cry “Black Lives Matter” is met with retorts of “Blue Lives” and “All Lives” Matter; it’s Frederick Douglass’ forewarning that true slavery isn’t the denial of mother, name, and birthday, but of an adequate education and functional literacy; it’s the despair in Harriet Jacobs’ words (“There are wrongs which even the grave does not bury”) reflected in the research of Dr. Cheryl Neely on “media and law enforcement bias in reporting and investigating homicides of African American women compared with their white counterparts.”
The unrelenting applause over Mockingbird only serves to reflect the absence—indeed evasion—of genuine race dialogue in America. By only attacking the skin surface of racism, Mockingbird entirely misses the real inner workings of an institution which has endured until this very day. And that is the real danger in the novel’s popularity: it oversimplifies the matter and cajoles the issue, leaving us feeling good about ourselves. But this has facilitated a complacency which has left the matter unaddressed. As a result, 1960 Maycomb lives on in 2019 America.
By only attacking the skin surface of racism, Mockingbird misses the real inner workings of an institution which has endured until this very day.
At best, Mockingbird is a simplistic moral allegory which introduces children to some of the “big people” problems they might encounter and reminds them to do the right thing. But it concerns me as an educator that for decades, this book has continued to be presented as a testament of literary brilliance. It’s time to shelve this nostalgic and dated gem up high next to Gone with the Wind, Anne of Green Gables, and Little House on the Prairie. As John Oliver would say, How Is This Still A Thing?