I am reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the book, Dr. Kendi mentions To Kill a Mockingbird. I captured the screen from my Kindle book and sent the following tweet:
Ibram X. Kendi on To Kill a Mockingbird, which he describes as the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the civil rights era.” pic.twitter.com/zWp1gv7Wdx
— Dana Huff (@danamhuff) June 20, 2020
I didn’t start my day thinking I was going to get involved in a massive Twitter discussion about TKAM. I have mostly been silent about the debate I’ve seen online as I thought about my own experience with the novel. Reading Dr. Kendi’s words, however, helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the book.
In the accompanying Twitter thread, I talked about how I devoured this book when I read it in high school. I actually read ahead of the required reading homework, which I really never did. I was a huge reader, but I didn’t like much of anything my teachers asked me to read in school. Sometimes I didn’t read and faked my way through. But that was not true of To Kill a Mockingbird.
When I had my own classroom, my first year as a teacher, I asked for a class set of TKAM. My students were predominantly Black, and I could tell they didn’t love the book. I taught the book for several years, however. I thought it was antiracist. It is not.
I cringe so often thinking of my early years as a teacher. I want to apologize to those students every day. Not that I’m finished growing, but when I think of all I didn’t know and the harm I did in ignorance, I have so many regrets. However, I need to be honest and say that my teacher preparation program, while it was amazing in many ways, was seriously lacking in teaching social justice. Lisa Delpit and Beverly Daniel Tatum were writing when I was in undergrad. So were bell hooks and Geneva Gay. We were not exposed to any of their writing. I went into a classroom with no idea what I was doing in terms of culturally responsive teaching, and yes, I blame my English education program for that. They must have known we needed this background. It should have been woven through our entire curriculum.
In the Twitter thread, I explained that I would not teach the book again.
Electing not to teach a book is not the same thing as banning it.
I have been thinking about this book for a little while. I haven’t read it in years, but it kept cropping up in discussions online. This seems to be the book that teachers, especially White teachers, really get upset about when someone suggests maybe we move on and teach something else.
If you have to teach it, you really need to interrogate it. The Black characters in the book are props for White children to learn about racism. They are not centered. They are silenced. We can do better. If someone is making you teach it, share your concerns. Open a conversation. And definitely disrupt it (thanks #DisruptTexts!)
Think about your purpose. If you are teaching TKAM in order to teach about racism, this book is not helping you reach that goal. In fact, it’s getting in your way.
I have been recommending Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy instead. Bryan Stevenson is actually a real lawyer doing some amazing work. If you’re teaching TKAM to middle schoolers, then you might see if the version for young people suits your student population better.
There are so many options before you! What about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give? Samira Ahmed’s Internment? Jason Reynolds’s books? Ibi Zoboi’s books? We have so many options, and if our goal in teaching a book is to discuss a text about racism, we need to center the voices of people who actually have experienced it.
This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.