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How these “progressive” teachers banned “To Kill A Mockingbird” from their classrooms

Their story deserves to be told -- and read

… exactly what is the role of literature?

Often, when we read stories, they may offend us in a variety of ways and even challenge us to think about problems in ways that we would prefer to avoid. This happens even if the stories may be classics.

Does that mean that teachers should avoid these stories or narratives just because they are offensive or provide ideas that may challenge the contemporary or personal ideas of young people — or adults?

Of course not. Great literature is supposed to challenge us, to make us think long and hard about  issues that may disturb us.

One example of where this occurred is the reality that for many years, educators avoiding teaching materials about the Holocaust in which more than six million Jews were killed by Hitler and the Nazis.

And just recently, I read about how a Jewish woman believes that the classical “The Diary of Ann Frank” should be banned because it does more harm than good to the young people who read it.

That was shocking to me. The diary is one way in which young people are first introduced to the Holocaust, which is a horrible event in history. Should be ignore it and not read masterpieces about it like Elie Wiesel’s “Night”?

Fortunately, many teachers and schools are treating the Holocaust with the academic rigor that it deserves.

The Book Banners

However, many people are banning books from library shelves for a variety of reasons. Generally, people who are considered to be educators and who are “progressive” in their beliefs are opposed to these tactics.

For instance, a group of teachers from the state of Washington, most of whom are white and call themselves “progressives,” worked to remove one classic from their curriculum because it offended some of their students. This book has been controversial for one reason, but these teachers are hurting their students by not allowing them to read something that may offend them.

Actually, the truth is that it probably offends the teachers more than the students and that they are just as bigoted as those whom they often criticize for banning books.

The novel is the generally beloved classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the use of the “N-word” has made it controversial with some.

Here is that sad story.

Harper Lee deserves better

One teacher started the censorship

Yes, let’s call what happened exactly what it is. This is blatant censorship, something that progressives have opposed for years. And, just because someone is black does not mean that the person is “progressive.”

Take the case of Shanta Freeman-Miller, a black teacher at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo in the state of Washington. During a meeting of the Union of Students of African Ancestry, a group that she founded because the teenagers wanted such a group, they expressed some displeasure with having to read the book,

Students shared their discomfort with the way the 1960 novel about racial injustice portrays Black people: One Black teen said the book misrepresented him and other African Americans, according to meeting records reviewed by The Washington Post. Another complained the novel did not move her, because it wasn’t written about her — or for her …

Freeman-Miller wondered: Did the school really have to teach Harper Lee’s classic but polarizing novel, as was mandatory for all freshmen? She soon talked with three white English teachers and convinced them that they should also be concerned about the novel. The foursome eventually launched a years-long quest to prohibit any teacher in the largely liberal Mukilteo School District from assigning “Mockingbird.” And it started with a formal book challenge in late 2021 — the first in 20 years, and the first ever to come from teachers.

“To Kill A Mockingbird centers on whiteness,” the teachers wrote in their challenge, adding that “it presents a barrier to understanding and celebrating an authentic Black point of view in Civil Rights era literature and should be removed.”

Hannah Natanson, “Students hated ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Their teachers

tried to dump it,” Washington Post, November 3, 2023.

It centers on “whiteness”? Absolutely, it portrays very accurately the discrimination that the blacks in Alabama had to face in the 1930s. All-white juries. Horrible injustice of the justice system toward blacks.

That is history. That is reality. That is something students should confront.

That is exactly what motivated Martin Luther King and others to march across that bridge in Selma, Alabama. If students do not understand the reasons that the civil rights movement took place in the 1960s, how are they going to comprehend the horrific discrimination against blacks and the reason that more than 600 thousand people were killed in the Civil War?

Are we supposed to ignore slavery because the Civil Rights movement eliminated it? No, the movement did not end slavery. The Civil War did, but that did not end the discrimination in Alabama, and that is just what Harper Lee, who saw this first-hand, is explaining in the classical novel.

Teachers rarely are book-banners

Not only that, very few book challenges across the country were teachers — until now,

Of the nearly 500 book challengers who gave an identification in The Post’s database, just eight said they were school staff.

Around the country, book challengers mostly came from the right. But in Mukilteo, the progressive teachers who complained about the novel saw themselves as part of an urgent national reckoning with racism, a necessary reconsideration of what we value, teach and memorialize following the killing of George Floyd.

Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, November 3, 2023

So, are we supposed to view this classical work differently because of what happened to Floyd?

Their logic was baffling,

They weren’t asking to pull the book from the library — just to stop forcing it on students. They believed they were protecting children.

Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, November 3, 2023

I objected to some actions of Black Lives Matter, but…

After the Floyd killing, people from all over the country were outraged. Many of them were, like I am, white. However, I felt that the actions of BLM at times went against Martin Luther King’s admonition for -non-violent civil disobedience.”

Many whites were outraged at the violence that was precipitated by some blacks in the wake of the Floyd fiasco. I was one of them. They were acting more like the violent blacks who opposed MLK’s admonition.

Does that mean that I oppose the BLM movement? No, but it also means that I can criticize it. I do not want to ban the group, but I want to try and make it more positive in its image.

Other teachers called them book-banners

So, where did that leave the high school teachers who objected to removing Mockingbird from the curriculum?

Most teachers and librarians objected to the actions of the “book banners,” who were effectively engaged in censorship,

[O]ther teachers and librarians, especially those at nearby Mariner High School, saw the Kamiak foursome as book banners.

“Any time you restrict access to students, it’s unfair,” said Stephanie Wilson, a Mariner teacher-librarian. “This was, to me, a form of censoring.”

Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, November 3, 2023

It absolutely is censorship, and surprisingly, the book banners in the U.S., who are usually conservative parents and ideologues, were joyful that these teachers were joining their ranks as censors,

The fight over “Mockingbird” would spark a rare moment of national political unity, with right-wing critics alleging the district wanted to censor a classic in service of a “woke” agenda — while left-wing detractors insisted teachers were erasing the reality of racism. It would leave the superintendent fielding more than 100 angry phone calls and emails, some librarians wondering what might be challenged next, and some teachers scared to assign “Mockingbird” for fear of being labeled racist.

The four teachers who challenged “Mockingbird” knew things might go sideways. Nearly a year before she would object to the title, Johnson sat down and penned an email to her principal, girding for the difficult path ahead.

“I understand the delicate politics here ... the plan to remove TKM may backfire,” she wrote in late 2020. “I also know that the racial trauma our students of African Ancestry are dealing with is raw and real. ... I will stand by you. I will take the angry phone calls.”

“I know,” she wrote, “this is the right call.”

Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, November 3, 2023

So, a black teacher ignites censorship but calls it the right one — while people throughout the South are trying to remove books written by black authors from the shelves?

The right-wing challenges

While the black teacher and a few whites thought that they were doing justice to black students, the Washington Post did some investigating of its own.

Education reporter Hannah Natanson filed records requests with 150 school districts nationwide, seeking copies of every book challenge they received in the 2021-2022 school year …

Natanson obtained and read through more than 1,000 challenges totaling 2,500 pages. A Post analysis of the challenges found that books about LGBTQ people are fast becoming the main target of the challenges — and that the majority of book complaints come from a minuscule number of hyperactive adults. Just 11 people were responsible for filing 60 percent of the 2021-2022 challenges. The most commonly cited reason for opposing books was a desire to shield children from sexual content.

Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, November 3, 2023

One of the teachers wrote very clearly that she was attempting to censor it by removing it from the curriculum,

“I am asking you to allow teachers who choose to do so to skip teaching TKM this year,” Johnson wrote in September 2020, “while we work on the process to remove it entirely from the curriculum.”

She was then chair of the department.

Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, November 3, 2023

The teachers ignored the praise

While opponents of the book have pointed to the use of the N-word, which could not have been eliminated if the story was to have any impact, the truth is that it is still regarded as a literary classic,

But the book has also earned critical acclaim and generations of fans, who praise it for its lyricism and its honest portrayal of racism in the American South. It won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction a year after it was published. In 2021, New York Times readers voted it the best book of the past 125 years …

Joy Matthew, a 2021 graduate and a student at Emory University, loved the book for its “carefully thought-out writing and storytelling.” Matthew, who is Black, wrote in a statement that she will never forget the character of Tom Robinson, the Black man accused of rape, nor how Lee compared him to a songbird.

“The bird represents his innocence and fragility in society and how people can hear a voice so quietly but pay no mind to it,” she wrote. Removing “Mockingbird” would mean “silencing Tom Robinson and every black man who has been unfairly persecuted.”

Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, November 3, 2023

So, what is the role of literature and what is the role of teachers? Parents and educators should be aware of what children are reading. Certainly, pornography should be restricted, but where is the line between literature and trash?

D. H. Lawrence’s classic “” was considered by some to be excessively sexual in his day, but today, it is actually considered to be lame by some standards.

The same with language. I was given a gift of a book when I retired because it was called something like Friday Night Lights since that was about football. However, I had read fewer than 20 pages when the coach who was one of the heroes in the story — supposedly — started to incessantly use the F-word.

As a coach and educator, I have always opposed this. However, some writers believe that without that word, you could not understand the import of the story.

In this case, I disagree. No educator should use that word in front of students in my estimation — so am I censoring those who do?

Yes, but that is not literature. That is an example that we should use in working with children.

However, as for these “progressive” teachers, they are engaging in censorship, plain and simple. And by doing so, they are taking away from students the right to understand this.

Most teachers tell the students to not read the N-word aloud or skip over it since it is definitely racist. That is a good approach. For those who are offended by the use of the word, they can avoid it in that way.

That is the same with sexual allusions in stories that students are assigned in high school. They can be told to skip over those.

What I will say is that true progressives oppose censorship, and I would love to hear more about the philosophical beliefs of these teachers. Just being black does not make a person progressive, just as being white does not make a person a bigot.

These teachers are apparently proud of what they did, but they should not be. I would love to see what classical work of literature was replaced on their reading list. One said that she had substituted “Lamb to the Slaughter.” Not much of a classic there.

They admit, however, that their actions have now resulted in a “poisoned word environment” for them. Unfortunate, but that is reality.

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