Just read a newspaper article re the banning of the book ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird.’ (The Washington Post 17/10/17, ) This is PC gone mad. If we ‘destroy’ art and literature of the past because it is being judged, out of context, to be non-PC are we not destroying/distorting history? Are we not destroying a very obvious example for the young of ‘how things used to be’?
The following was written four years ago for the Glasgow Women’s Library:
‘To Kill a Mocking Bird ‘by Harper Lee
Written during the late 50s, published 1960, awarded prestigious Pulitzer Prize 1961, translated into over 40 languages, sold over 30 million copies, never out of print, one of most challenged books, BANNED!
Hearing this book had been banned I thought, ‘That’ll be south USA, because it criticises the state of affairs existing in the South during the 30s.’ But this was how it was and Lee grew up in Alabama where the book is set. Who better to write about life there at that time? Imagine my surprise and consternation on discovering the history of this banning or attempted banning. Yes, it was in USA, but spanned the entire country. As early as 1966 the use of rape as a plot device was described as immoral. In the 70s the book was condemned as a filthy, trashy novel, using profane language, (damn, whore lady), didn’t condemn racism ‘enough’. In the 90s and 00s attacks continued, use of the word nigger unacceptable, racial slurs degrading to African-Americans.
Lee probably knew of the infamous 1931 Scottsboro’ case (Alabama), the circumstances of which resonate in her book in the trial of Tom Robinson , a black man accused of the rape of a white girl, a capital offence in Alabama. She would also have been aware of the total fiasco of the Emmett Till trial (Mississippi) in 1955. Here again the trial of Tom and the jury’s decision resonate but Lee makes two crucial differences. The length of the deliberation and the fact that one juror wanted to acquit. The verdict was not a foregone conclusion. The attempt to lynch Tom may also owe something to the 1935 lynching in Miami of Rubin Stacey, seized by a mob from sheriffs’ deputies, and hanged for allegedly attacking a white woman. These are not fiction. They and many similar are fact.
People who try to ban this book don’t know their history, or maybe they do and feel guilty about it.
It is my argument that the accusations levelled display a total misunderstanding of the book. The narrator is the young girl, Scout, a tomboy as was Lee. We see, through her eyes and the innocence of childhood, the drama of the reality of a black man accused of the rape of a white women. Atticus, Scout’s father and a lawyer – as was Lee’s father - despite loss of respect in the white community and threat of violence remains true to his beliefs and goes ahead with his defence of the accused, Tom Robinson. Despite the climate of the time Atticus believes that all are entitled to respect and justice regardless of their station in life or the colour of their skin. Here we see a ray of hope through Atticus’ stand against injustice. Dolphus Raymond and Miss Maudie make the ray a little brighter. There is a moral condemnation of racial prejudice and Lee places it in the 30s, some 25 years before the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. The blatant hypocrisy of Aunt Alexandra’s Missionary Circle and her attitude towards White ‘trash’ display a more general prejudice.
There is a degree of violence in the book but it is in context and never gratuitous.
Again it reflects a time of extreme violence. It is the violence and injustice that leads to the loss of innocence of Jem, Scout’s brother whose trust and faith in his community id shattered. He determines to become a lawyer and fight injustice. Surely a positive vision of the future.
But the book is not a polemic and shouldn’t be judged as such or criticised for not being so. We must always be objective, looking at situations in the context of the ethos of the time. We can say that we have learnt, we are now more civilised, that these things are wrong and shouldn’t happen anymore.
In 1998 Jerome Byrd was murdered in Texas because he was black. Two of his murderers, white supremacists, were executed. In 2009 James Anderson was murdered by at least 7 teenagers who went out as a matter of course to ‘hassle niggers’.
Lee’s book should be read by everyone. There are lessons to be learned from it, even after the 50+ years of the book’s existence.
Mary Irvine September, 2013