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Reevaluating ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ 60 years later
Hari Sreenivasan: Today marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of "To Kill A Mockingbird." It's required reading in many schools. Author Harper Lee's book about racial injustice set in Alabama focuses on Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the Jim Crow south defending a Black man falsely accused of rape. It was turned into a popular film and more recently, before the COVID-19 shutdown, a sold-out Broadway play.
But while it's earned praise as a portrait of moral courage, it has more recently come under scrutiny for how it frames racism and its Black characters. I recently spoke with Lisa Lucas, executive director of the national book foundation, about reevaluating the book in the age of black lives matter.
Lisa Lucas: I think "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one book, right? But I think that what ends up happening is it's the most read book, right, by middle schoolers and high schoolers. It's something that we look at as, like, a cultural touchstone when we think about how to parse what's happening in the American South or the American North and race relations in general. And I think that we've always held Atticus Finch up to be this moral guide. This is how you are a moral white person in America. This is how you stand up sometimes alone against injustice and make a difference.
But where it stops short for me is looking really at the systemic injustice, right? Like one person can't change the judicial system. One person can't change the hearts and minds of every single person in the nation, right? And so when we look at this one really narrow framework of how to explore one man's desire to do good, one child's, you know, sort of moral education, and then we try to apply it writ large to an entire society, I mean, I think that we find in this extremely critical moment of reckoning that it falls a bit short.
Hari Sreenivasan: There's also this white savior complex that I think more people are open to possibly seeing now where, you know, we have an education system where the bulk of public school students in the country are students of color and the bulk of teachers are white. And, like, who's assigning this story? What are the identities of the children that are in the classroom and how they're absorbing it? Do they see themselves in these characters? It's a lot of complicated questions for how to rethink a text that has become, as you said, the most read thing in middle school.
Lisa Lucas: Yeah, I mean, I think that it's important what the canon looks like and who the canon builders are, right? You have publishers, authors, you know, award makers, teachers, parents that all collaborate to kind of say this is something that we want all of our children to collectively read. But I wonder if you were to ask African-American people in America if the book that they want all of their children to read is "To Kill a Mockingbird".
And so it's not so much that I take total issue with the book. It's a fun book to read. It's smart. And it does have a very strong moral core in many ways, but it doesn't tell the whole story. I think what I have always wanted in literature is more stories that show black people in full relief. You know, I don't want to look at one-dimensional black characters in a book exploring race relations and then see every thought and feeling that the white characters have. And so where's the balance? I think that we have to revisit each of the things that we've loved and not necessarily throw them out, but to actually look at all of them and say, what do they mean together? What do they mean now? What do they mean to us in 2010 or 2001 and what do they mean in 2020?
Hari Sreenivasan: If you're talking to middle school teachers today, what would you say--pair that book, along with X, Y or Z to try to challenge your students?
Lisa Lucas: I mean, Jason Reynolds, he wrote of a middle grade book called the "Track" series. It's a series of four books about young people on a team. And it's not really that political at the foundation, but it actually shows young people of color growing up in our cities and living their lives and laughing and crying and hurting and suffering from some of the societal injustice that's on their way and thriving in spite of it.
And it's like, I'd love to see that kind of loving representation of Black life in America with all of its attendant challenges to showcase that you're dealing with people. We can't keep looking at everybody as tropes. And so I think that anything that actually shows us as we are in all the different ways that we exist in the United States is important to complement to something like "To Kill a Mockingbird."
You know, I think that we always want to think about how to assign books that explicitly hit things on the head, right? "OK, I want to see a book that shows something horrible being done to a Black person and a white person challenging that horrificness and feeling really good and teaching their children that this is the way that we treat all people, right?" That feels great. But it hasn't at any point humanized that which has been dehumanized culturally. It doesn't change our hearts and minds in the same way that simply spending 150 pages or 350 pages with a Black family makes us realize that there are similarities. It's like, how do we pivot it and take it away from the white gaze and actually make it about trying to understand race relations through looking straightforwardly at people of color?
Hari Sreenivasan: And I wonder who is writing the next "To Kill a Mockingbird" in the context of today?
Lisa Lucas: I think there's so much happening. I mean, it's like, publishing is really exciting right now. I mean, I think that you see, you know, a real critical lens being turned to the publishing apparatus in this moment, you know, fast, because we're creating the culture, you know?
It's like, we always talk, you know, "People don't buy books, people don't read," except that books inform our television, our film, you know, our journalists, you know? Everybody is-- the thought that books drive into the world are powered forward by so many other media makers and cultural thinkers. And so I just think it's really exciting that people are actually going to that foundation and saying we have to change not only who is telling stories, but who is editing those stories. How are we publishing those stories? Who are those stories for? And I think that you will see finally to scale, you know, some incredible balance in letters so that we can actually see, you know, the real world we live in and not just a parcel of it.
Hari Sreenivasan: Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, thanks so much for joining us.
Lisa Lucas: Thank you. Take care.