The Monona Grove School District is reviewing an African-American parent request to remove the Harper Lee novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the high school English curriculum. The request, made by Tujama and Jeannine Kameeta, cites 48 racial slurs directed at African-Americans in the book, the fact that no African-American writers are read in the same English curriculum, and the character of Atticus Finch as an example of the “white savior” complex with African-Americans not portrayed as active in their own fight for freedom.
These parents have a son in the ninth grade at Monona Grove High School. I’d like to thank them for speaking on behalf of their son, and seeking to protect him through this formal petition.
When I read the article, I was instantly transported back to high school in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was required to read the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn series by Mark Twain. I was also a young student in a predominantly white school, taught by predominantly white teachers. I was looking at books that had the N-word all throughout them and even had a character called “nig--- Jim.” The books also had two white heroes, Huck and Tom, who are going to free Jim, while Jim, a grown man, does nothing to free himself. I was traumatized by this derogatory word being required reading, horrified when it was read aloud and can still remember the teacher repeating, “These books on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are classics — really great literature.” I took my black ink pen and covered every N-word in the book. Here is why.
I lived in the South and was of the first generation integrated into white schools. My kind and gentle mother taught me that the only time I could hit someone as hard as I could, right in their mouth, was if they called me a “nig---.” She made me understand I would probably be called that word a lot in the South, but I must never allow anyone to insult me to that degree. She promised that if I got into any trouble, she would be at the school defending and protecting me.
English was one of my favorite subjects, and to have this insulting word continuously repeated was more than difficult, it was depressing and made me feel that white students were encouraged in their racism and even happy to repeat the N-word again and again.
This book could be taught if the teacher knew how to prepare the class, but few do. I never told my mother about the book, my blacking out the N-word, or how awful I felt reading the book. I had already learned, at a young age, that there were so many daily racist battles to be fought, you called your parents for help for only the most terrible incidents. “Nig---" in a book, while truly painful, wasn’t threatening my life, like when white kids threw bricks at us on the way to and from school. I had to tell both Dad and Mom about that and get their help.
Reading this article about "To Kill a Mockingbird" spiraled me back to high school and all those feelings juxtaposed against me as an adult who realizes that for many European Americans, this book was their first exposure to the brutality against African-Americans by white Southerners. The book was also seen as groundbreaking because African-American “lived experiences” were now written by Harper Lee, a Southern white woman, much the same way that "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist, assisted in helping to galvanize anti-slavery sentiment.
When I read "To Kill a Mockingbird," I was struck by the fact that Tom Robinson, a black man, falsely accused of raping white Mayella Ewell, is innocent, yet is killed anyway. How does that final fact translate to a young African-American boy in a predominantly white school, taught by predominantly white teachers, in 2018, who are telling him this is required reading? I believe it feels the same way it felt to me: truly unfair and truly awful. Ban the book, no. Remove it from the high school curriculum, yes.
Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times. email@example.com
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