Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has this week been banned from some schools in America due to the “racial slurs” depicted in its pages.
Virginia mother Marie Rothstein-Williams formally requested that Lee’s 1960 novel, alongside Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, be axed from the syllabus because “there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording[…] and right now we are a nation divided as it is”. Now they are banned from the district of Accomack County, Virginia.
Despite the increasing vogue for censorship in the West, this is nothing new. In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most frequently challenged books in the US, and has been subject to attempted bans for 50 years.
The first widely-known complaint came in 1966 – also out of Virginia – from someone who thought discussing rape in print was “indecent”.
It has hardly let up since, though the reasons keep changing. Here are all the reasons people have cited to have Lee’s work stripped from the shelves:
Including a rape trial in a novel is “immoral”
W.C Bosher, a doctor in Hanover County, Virginia, flicked through his son’s library book in 1966 and concluded it was “improper for our children to read”.
Bosher, a member of the school board, took his complaint further and had the novel exorcised from libraries because it was deemed “immoral literature”.
How yall gonna ban to kill a mocking bird and Huck Finn?! Lmao coz they drop the n word?! No backbone having ass, Its historically accurate.
— Armon | Young God (@gzpch_) December 6, 2016
His passion for banning books went on, and also caught up The Catcher in the Rye and 1984.
The objection on sexual grounds has been rehearsed many times since – as recently as a 2006 case where a Tennessee middle school tried to ban it due to “adult themes such as sexual intercourse, rape, and incest.”
It uses “filthy language” like “whore-lady”
In 1977 a complainant had the book removed from schools in Eden Valley, Minnesota, because the word “damn” and the phrase “whore-lady” were used.
For some reason “piss” seems only to have been spotted and objected to later by a Pennsylvania teacher.
Y'all they banned to kill a mocking bird and huck finn… we keep going backwards.
— nia (@__bikibaby) December 6, 2016
In 1980 a New York State teacher was still calling the book “filthy” and people in Alabama – where the novel is set – were still objecting to “damn”.
The original 1966 Hanover attempted ban also referenced bad language.
The novel is “trashy”
Responding to the 1966 Hanover County ban, one Mrs L. L. Hollins wrote to the local Richmond News-Leader newspaper, emphasizing the importance of establishing “a reading list of the caliber that would exclude books such as To Kill a Mockingbird“.
A school librarian joined in, calling the book “slummy” – likely because it includes non-standard form of English.
The idea that you would ban huck Finn and to kill a mocking bird because of racial slurs shows that you learned nothing from reading them
— Adam Doucette (@DoucetteAdam) December 5, 2016
In 1980 it was still getting called a “trashy novel” – an additional complaint by the New York school teacher who called it “filthy”.
I’ve not read it, but ban it anyway
One enlightened contribution to the Richmond News-Leader said: “I have not read the book (nor do I intend to do so) but I did see the diabolical movie, which was repulsive enough.”
The language is racist
Despite the book depicting racism and the people who use racist language or demonstrate racist views as objectionable, there have been attempts to ban the book *for* racism since 1981, when African American parents in Indiana described it as “institutionalised racism under the guise of ‘good literature’” and said it could do “damage to the positive integration process”.
Over the following four years there were significant protests from people in Arizona, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri who objected to the use of the N-word, which occurs 48 times in the text.
It depicts a racist time
In 1996 it was banned from schools in a district of Texas because it “conflicted with the values of the community”.
In 2007 – the latest public spat over the book until this week – a New Jersey resident “objected to the novel’s depiction of how blacks are treated by members of a racist white community in an Alabama town during the Depression. The resident feared the book would upset black children reading it”.
It is still a racist time now
The current ban cites the political climate – “we are a nation divided as it is” – as not being compatible with the teaching of the book – though you can argue that the exact opposite is true.
The National Coalition Against Censorship criticised the action of the last few days thus. “By avoiding discussion of controversial issues such as racism, schools do a great disservice to their students.”
To quote another 1966 letter from another concerned mother to a Virginia paper: “Hiding the ‘seamy’ side of life is false protection. Sound instruction based on free choice of reading material is one way of developing character.”