Racists tried to ban To Kill a Mockingbird. How ironic that Ireland might now shun it

To Kill a Mockingbird is part of many Irish childhoods. Should it supply moral instruction?

To Kill a Mockingbird: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in the 1962 film of the novel. Photograph: Silver Screen/Getty

To Kill a Mockingbird: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in the 1962 film of the novel. Photograph: Silver Screen/Getty

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Harper Lee derived much of To Kill a Mockingbird, her 1960 novel, from her childhood in 1930s Alabama. And it has, for better or worse, become a canonical part of many Irish people’s childhoods as a set text for the Junior Certificate for at least 20 years. (Though teachers can choose to teach other texts, it remains popular.)

Earlier this year, events in the United States led to debate around its place on the syllabus, especially to do with an important question relating to racial slurs: how does one prevent a racial slur in a canonical text, where it exists amid its history and context, from making the short jump from the classroom to the playground?

I do not know the answer to that question, but it is one the Department of Education is set to consider. The syllabus is under review and a new list of recommended texts is to be circulated in September next year, according to media reports. (Not just because of this controversy: the list is reviewed periodically.)

Racist segregationists tried to ban the book in the turmoil of the US civil rights era, and it would be a deep irony if calls for its removal from the syllabus on social-justice premises aligned one with such views

Though the question of slurs is certainly an important one, any moral outrage over To Kill a Mockingbird should consider carefully its publication history. Racist segregationists tried to ban the book in the turmoil of the US civil rights era, and it would be a deep irony indeed if calls for its removal on social-justice premises aligned one with such views.

But there is another question to consider, and it seemed to exist uneasily underneath all of the discussion around Mockingbird, which descended, with depressing predictability, into culture-war bromides: is it the job of literature to provide moral instruction? And, more pertinently, is it the job of literature that depicts racism, or literature written by people who have experienced racism, to teach us moral lessons about racism?

I would argue that it is the job of literature to resist the idea it has a job. I recall vividly the first time I sensed a novel was trying to “teach” me something, though I cannot remember what the novel itself was (still less the lesson). This was because I stopped reading it immediately. Lessons are not, I think, for literature class.

But even if you do think literature is supposed to teach us moral lessons (after all, we “teach” texts, and Lee defended her work in explicitly moral terms, although again we must remember the context in which she needed to defend it), then why on earth would we use To Kill a Mockingbird – a book set almost 100 years ago, in a society with little in common with our own – to teach Irish children growing up in the 21st century about racism? If we want our children to learn about how racism operates, we should teach them about it in the context in which they witness it: an Irish one.

There are many interesting, ignored and vital aspects that shape the experience of minority communities in Ireland, and it would be useful if such issues could be explored in context, and with materials created by people from these communities.

I’m not a teacher, nor an educational philosopher, but I think such instruction is more suited to a history or politics class. Though this point is debatable, and it is impossible, really, to establish walls between literature, history and politics, especially when they are well taught.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee. Photograph: Donald Uhrbrock/Time Life/Getty
To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee. Photograph: Donald Uhrbrock/Time Life/Getty

I did To Kill a Mockingbird for my Junior Cert. I probably read it at least 10 times. When I think of it now, what I mainly remember is its intensely powerful evocation of childhood. The long, hot, dry days that Jem, Scout and their weird friend Dill spent playing silly games in each other’s back yards. Or the opening paragraph, with its evocation of the pretty southern ladies sweating in their frilly dresses – I think Lee describes them as cakes, with their talcum powder melting like frosting. (I’m not looking up the reference, because I don’t want to remember the actual words. The memory is powerful enough.)

I don’t immediately think of the courtroom drama. Or the tragedy of Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman, who is herself at the mercy of her abusive father. Perhaps I should. Maybe the fact that my memories of this American classic focus on its white characters is a testament to my problematic nature. But it’s hard to feel ashamed of something you love. And I loved that book, and many young readers across the world do too.

I think the teaching of literature at Junior Cert level should be – and, as I recall, it largely is – focused on literature’s techniques. How does this writer achieve that affect, and to what end? When discussing this stuff, people often say, humans are a storytelling species, it’s in our nature, as if this is a good thing. I find our storytelling instincts deeply suspect – massively problematic, in fact. We need to show children how stories operate so they can learn how to spin their own and survive other people’s attempts to control them via theirs.

When I was at school we also studied another novel rooted in the Jim Crow-era United States, called Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by the black writer Mildred D Taylor. I loved this one as well and devoured its many sequels. For a while, many of the English essays I wrote featured characters ripped directly from Taylor’s work. (I hope they have been lost to history; my reputation would not survive their discovery.)

Also from that time, I have a memory of meeting a nun on a bus, somewhere in rural Ireland, on the way to my auntie’s house. She spotted that I was reading Thunder and started talking to me about the difficulty of teaching it to her remedial-level English class. Her students had great difficulty deciphering the southern dialect, and she wished she could use something less challenging with which to teach them. Sure it’s bad enough they have to learn Irish, she said, and roared laughing.

It is impossible to harness a real book, one that deals with the reality of how humans are, rather than how we think they should be, to straightforward moral instruction

That nun had a point. We are, in the English-speaking western world, very much at the mercy of the US lexicon on race, and we understand race largely through American texts and American political discourse. The British writer Tomiwa Owolade has written brilliantly about this. (His piece in Persuasion about the performative racial atonement he witnessed on social media this summer is hilarious, “like an interminable spoken word poem”, and deeply uncomfortable.)

And he says, in relation to the notion of a black literature, “black people have contradictory and complex views on issues around race, not because they are black but because they are human. The fight for racial justice shouldn’t rest on an assumption of the Black Voice; it should be defended on its own terms. The great thing about literature, though, is its emphasis on humanity – which means there’s always that space, in great novels, for tension and ambiguity. And if we overlook that aspect in novels by black writers, we overlook in black writers what we as readers value in novels.”

Just because texts like Mockingbird and Thunder are old, or American, or because they use unfamiliar dialects, or even, perhaps, deploy racial slurs, does not mean they have no value to Irish students. The value of Taylor’s work, and of Lee’s, is not that they teach us how to be anti-racists (although, like all great works, they demonstrate and create deeply felt human empathy with characters entirely unlike ourselves, which is by definition anti-racist).

The value of their work is essentially incalculable, as is that of all real literature. It is impossible to harness a real book, one that deals with the reality of how humans are, rather than how we think they should be, to straightforward moral instruction.

I hope that the civil servants tasked with reviewing all of this allow themselves to acknowledge their impossible task. It is impossible to defend literature; real literature is its own defence. And I hope that as they seek to diversify the selection of recommended texts – a commendable task – they do not try to trap black writers, or writers from other less represented cultures, within simplistic or moralistic notions of what literature is for.

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