According to the American Library Association, Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is number 41 of the 100 most frequently challenged or banned books in America.
It’s in good company. To Kill a Mockingbird shares space on that list with Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Last Friday, The Post and Courier reported that Wando High School was considering putting the kibosh on a spring production of To Kill a Mockingbird — a play the students themselves had made their first choice — because of what was deemed objectionable content. Principal Lucy Beckham referred a final decision on Mockingbird to Selina May, the school’s drama teacher.
It was a relief to learn this week that May finally decided in favor of producing the play. Yet the fact that it was in question at all says volumes about why S.C. ranks among the lowest state education systems in the country.
Censorship always stinks, of course. But there’s a difference between those who seek to censor books because they disagree with the message and those who seek to censor them because they agree with the message but worry that others aren’t smart enough to “get” it.
The first is the classic instance of right-wing absolutism — usually from religious types offended by any message that doesn’t jibe with their personal moral code and therefore want to squash it. The second is rooted in liberal nanny-ism and is more pernicious, because it’s less overt censorship yet just as rotten. With it, the greatest fear is that someone will be “offended” — to be avoided at all costs, even if it means denying them access to one of the world’s great works of literature. The subtle implication is that only a well-educated few are enlightened enough to fully understand the work and grasp its true meaning.
Lucy Beckham and Selina May both surely grasp the artistic and social significance of To Kill a Mockingbird. Their chief concern was with the racially derogatory language that one of Lee’s characters use. The fact that this character is an unambiguously vile human being who meets a bad, much deserved end wasn’t relevant. They worried that someone would hear him saying the word “nigger” and not be smart enough to understand it in the context of the play.
It sucks that the people in charge of educating our children sometimes have so little faith in their ability to be educated.
The students at Wando submitted a petition with 600 signatures asking that they be allowed to produce the play. Beckham dismissed the petition as meaningless. In a letter published in the P&C on Monday, 16-year-old Wando student Lindsey Sydow urged the school’s administration to allow production of the play to go forward. “I understand, as a high school journalist, that there are certain guidelines of political correctness one must follow in order to avoid pushing too many buttons,” she wrote. “I also understand that there has to be a reasonable limit to this student censorship for a good learning atmosphere to exist.”
The National Endowment for the Arts’ nationwide reading initiative, The Big Read, encourages all the citizens in an entire city to read a single great work of literature concurrently. Charleston will hopefully be participating in that program this fall. There are eight classic American novels The Big Read recommends communities read together. One them is To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Every American,” Sydow wrote, “should be familiar with this story about how racism and blind tradition destroys society.”
There’s another supremely relevant book on the Big Read’s list: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s darkly visionary parable of a society gone awry, in which firemen burn books and the state suppresses reading in the supposed best interests of everyone.
I bet it’s also on the reading list at Wando.
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