With all the books being banned or challenged by local school boards and states around the United States currently one of the favorite tactics of the American right is being utilized. This is deflection. Sometimes it will be a statement grounded in zero reality like, “Look at all the books the liberals want to ban,” or it will be a purposeful misunderstanding of the difference between the public and private sector like, “What about Dr. Seuss,” or it will be a non-corollary like a school removing a book from their curriculum.
It is that last one I saw most recently as a school in Washington State has decided to remove Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum. I have no problem with this. They aren’t making it forbidden to teach it, they aren’t removing it from libraries, they aren’t slandering it by calling it pornographic, or anything else that is happening to the books of Toni Morrison and others.
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the school books that I actually enjoyed reading when I was in school, but it isn’t the end all be all book about segregation in America and it does tell the story from the white prospective. There are books like Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and since To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t forbidden from being taught any of those books and it could be taught together to give a fuller picture of that era in American history.
The thing is some groups in America thrive on dishonesty and they want to take something like the updating of a curriculum and make it far more sinister. I don’t remember even half the books I read in school nor do I think those are the end all be all of literature.
The thing about the literary canon is it is constantly changing. It once was that all students must read Thomas Hardy. I didn’t have to read Thomas Hardy until I was a senior English major in college and the senior symposium was forgotten classics.
The literary canon works that way. Authors fall in and out of it. Some of completed several revolutions through it. What resonates with the audience and scholars of today isn’t the same as what resonated several years ago and it won’t be what resonates several years from now.
Think about this. Worldwide an average of 2.2 million books are published each year. That means 22 million books have been published since I graduated high school. Obviously, not all those books are worthy of being studied, but many are. If we keep reading and teaching the same books we will never progress.
As great as To Kill a Mockingbird is it has its flaws, and it tells us about the black experience through white eyes. No book should be forbidden from being read or taught, but that isn’t what is happening when a book is removed from a curriculum. One of the greatest strengths of reading is it allows us to experience the world through other’s eyes. It might be time to set To Kill a Mockingbird aside for a bit and give the works of Baldwin, Butler, Ellison, Hurston, and Morrison more prominence in our education system.