In the recent The Great American Read miniseries, PBS declared Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird America’s “favorite” novel. This was unsurprising, considering the novel’s entrenched position in the canon of public school literature.
As a high school teacher myself, I’ve seen firsthand the love that students have for Lee’s coming-of-age story. However, as perceptions and understanding of social issues evolve, so should our understanding of art. It’s imperative that we critically look at even the most well-intentioned texts. This is all to say, critics have decried the honorific given to To Kill a Mockingbird. Granted, this response isn’t new. Many critics object to the way To Kill a Mockingbird frame the oppression of African Americans as a learning opportunity or moment of heroism for its white protagonists.
What To Kill A Mockingbird MeansIn 2018
Writer Will Menarndt makes the case that Atticus encourages white liberals to believe that “civility” is enough to fight racism:
“Here is the great dream of every white liberal — that he or she could simply face down a mob and with the sheer power of our presence as strong role models, shame would-be assailants to return to the shadows from whence they came.”
Osamudia R. James takes the criticism further by saying that Atticus’ form of white liberalism enables subtle racism:
“…he keeps good white liberals from reconsidering the fact that they live in white neighborhoods; from challenging administrators about the racial segregation of their children’s schools or white supremacy advanced in the curriculum; or from acknowledging how they benefit from a system that keeps people of color laboring in their homes but excluded from their social and professional spaces. Like Finch, it is sufficient that they simply ‘do their best to love everybody.’”
It’s from this new look at To Kill a Mockingbird that two things become clear. First, we need to reassess how we look at To Kill a Mockingbird. Second, we need a new novel that addresses To Kill a Mockingbird‘s themes while remaining relevant to modern concerns.
ToKillAMockingbird On Broadway
To address the former, we have the new Aaron Sorkin play adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The play features many of Sorkin’s usual ticks, but it also provides a fresh look at Atticus Finch. Unsurprisingly, Sorkin structured to focus primarily on the trial of Tom Robinson. In the novel, Mayella Ewell, a white woman, accusses Tom Robinson, a black man, of sexual assault.
The people of Maycomb arrest Tom despite the evidence that clearly makes him innocent. Due to Tom Robinson’s race, no one is willing to give him a proper defense. It then falls upon Atticus’ shoulders to take on the defense of Tom Robinson. Along the way, Atticus preaches the value of empathy and protecting the civility of our society in the pursuit of justice.
Similar conversations have recently re-entered the popular zeitgeist. Media pundits spill digital ink promoting the “civil exchange of ideas” following recent outbursts of violence spurned Neo-Nazi hate groups. Atticus Finch, the paragon of the “they go low, we go high” ethos, preaches the value of “walking around in another person’s skin” in order to truly understand them. In the play, he extends this empathy to the racist Bob Ewell, claiming he is not truly evil, but misguided. It’s here that Sorkin breaks strongly with one of the most reverent aspects of the original novel.
In the novel, Atticus’ judgment is considered final and invaluable to the themes of the novel. In the play, Atticus’ statement receives a rebuttal in the form of Calpurnia, the Finch’s African American servant. Sorkin’s version of Calpurnia challenges Atticus’ white savior attitudes.
When Atticus defends racist Bob Ewell, Calpurnia reminds of how many people he disrespects in the process. This deconstruction of Atticus as a character is so radical that Harper Lee’s estate sued the production for breach of contract that stated it would remain faithful to the original text.
ToKillAMockingbird: Atticus & Oppression
While a diversion from the text, the deconstruction is necessary. Atticus’ belief in the people of Maycomb County leads him into an unwinnable case with Tom Robinson. It’s that same belief in good intentions that allows racism to grow like weeds in an untended garden. People act as if our better angels will win out instead of confronting the hateful racism that still exists. Once the guilty verdict for Tom Robinson is read, Atticus immediately comes to the defense of the people of Maycomb. He proclaims their innocence, and that they aren’t evil.
He says to Calpurnia, ‘I know these people.’ Calpurnia responds, ‘I know them better than you.’ She’s not wrong. The victims of racial oppression have seen the true faces of those who commit such heinous acts of prejudice. They hide these faces from their fellow white citizens. This deliberate ignorance is what allows the Atticus’ of the world to call for civility. They do not see the evil. It’s a darker ending to be sure, but a necessary one. So how can race be truly addressed in our literature? It starts by listening to those who have seen the true face of prejudice as they tell their story.
The Hate U Give & True Empathy
So what should be an alternative to To Kill A Mockingbird in our curriculum? A case should be made for the Angie Thomas novel The Hate U Give. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird, Thomas’ novel centers on a young girl caught in the middle of a larger societal issue.
Starr Carter is a black high school student who witnesses her unarmed friend Khali get shot by a police officer. Starr copes with both the trauma of the what she witnessed and Khali’s reputation being dragged through the mud by the media in an attempt to justify the police officer’s mistake. Meanwhile, Starr is trying to keep all of this a secret from her peers at the affluent, predominately white private school she attends.
The book and its recent film adaptation, directed by George Tillman Jr., feature characters that show the reader how these events are seen through a community. The book considers all perspectives, from average citizens to gang members to cops to clueless suburbanites.
The Hate U Give shares To Kill a Mockingbird‘s philosophy of empathy, but it approaches it from a different perspective. To Kill a Mockingbird preaches empathy for all people, while The Hate U Give demonstrates how our hate perpetuates an endless cycle. The film’s title comes from the Tupac Shakur philosophy of T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E., an acronym that stands for The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. To quote Tupac himself:
“What you feed us as seeds, grows and blows up in your face.”
“Facing The Change”
While To Kill a Mockingbird puts the responsibility of forgiveness and empathy on the shoulders of the oppressed, The Hate U Give reminds us that the responsibility should be on the individual to not show hate, period. Starr decides to speak as a witness before a grand jury who is deciding the fate of the officer who shot Kahli.
Her words fall on deaf ears as the grand jury decides not to indict the officer. A peaceful protest following the hearing gives Starr the opportunity to share her truth. (This moment in the film is delivered in a powerhouse performance by Amandla Stenberg, who deserves serious awards recognition for this film.) This is perhaps the most important lesson of The Hate U Give: the importance of listening. While the Atticus Finches — and even the Harper Lees — of the world, mean well, their voice is not always the one that should speak for the oppressed.
Rather, it should raise the voices of the oppressed. It is often easier to only celebrate narratives that make us comfortable. In order to truly challenge the racial prejudices of the world, we need to be able to look at the ones that may still lurk within ourselves. Listening to the stories of others truly allows us to walk in their skin, not simply assuming we know their experiences.