It was big news recently when the Biloxi Public School District in Mississippi withdrew the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee from the eighth-grade curriculum. Now, after a national outcry, the book is back — sort of.
Earlier this month, Biloxi officials said eighth-graders would no longer read the book — which takes a critical look at racism in a Southern town in the 1930s through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl — as part of the regular English curriculum because its racist language made some people uncomfortable. The district’s curriculum guide had previously called the book a “classic with a focus on developing an appreciation for how ethical principles or laws of life can help people live successfully.”
After news spread that the book was pulled — one of a number of books challenged every year in schools and libraries by parents or others because of something deemed offensive — officials had second thoughts.
According to the Sun Herald, eighth-graders will now have a new opportunity to read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Though it will still not be required, a letter to students and parents from Biloxi Junior High School Principal Scott Powell said, “8th Grade ELA teachers will offer the opportunity for interested students to participate in an in-depth book study of the novel during regularly scheduled classes as well as the optional after school sessions.” What will be required is a parent’s note giving a student permission to read the book during class.
The Associated Press reported that the Biloxi School Board received letters from across the country urging that the book remain in the curriculum, including one from an 11th-grade Advanced Placement language class in Tenafly, N.J.
“These derogatory and offensive words are powerful; they make people uncomfortable because they are painful to hear. However, it is critical that discrimination, offensive language and racism are discussed in the classroom,” the students wrote. “We need a book like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ to illustrate the extreme prejudice that existed in our country’s past and to help start a conversation about the issues that sadly still exist today.”
The Sun Herald’s editorial board also urged that the book remain, writing:
As Lee said through her character Atticus Finch:
“Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a negro comes up is something I don’t pretend to understand.”
By removing “Mockingbird” Biloxi has missed a wonderful opportunity to have a frank discussion with their children why “reasonable people go stark raving mad.” Perhaps if we talked about race more there would be fewer people cavalierly tossing out hurtful racist language.