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Opinion: To Kill a Mockingbird’s offensive language helps teach tolerance

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Rex Ravita II
Oxford Stories
raravita@go.olemiss.edu

To Kill a Mockingbird is a 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel written by Harper Lee that has a become a classic of modern American literature. The novel has been used in the curriculum of thousands of high schools across the United States because of the narratives about racial inequality and the cultural significance of the novel.

In October, Biloxi public schools decided to remove the award-winning classic from its curriculum after complaints about the language used in the novel, including the N-word, which appears over 50 times throughout the novel. They have since decided to continue using the book.

b8d33c993d09ffc51be4550e5c1a7c12Newspapers first reported the incident, stating that it was not voted on, but was an administrative decision made in the middle of a lesson plan “due to the use of the N-word.”

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in a small Southern town in Alabama and puts the issues of rape and racial inequality into a narrative to educate students about those issues. Although the book is a renowned educational tool, it has also been a source of controversy since schools began adding it to their curriculum. There have been numerous attempts to ban the book in the U.S.

Those who oppose the numerous challenges and attempted book bans say the book is supposed to make you uncomfortable. Head of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, James LaRue, told The Washington Post: “A classic is something that makes us uncomfortable because it talks about things that matter.”

Kenny Holloway, a Biloxi school board official, said this: “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable.”

He may be referring to the use of the N-word throughout the novel, which should make you uncomfortable if you are not a racist. While the word is offensive to African Americans and others, it is appropriate and necessary to the story.

Many agree the novel should certainly make readers uncomfortable due to its unforgiving portrayal of the African American experience, and they support the novel’s tone.

While some view the usage of the N-word as problematic, it was by no means aimless. Lee intentionally included the word, forcing readers to address their own racism, even if they had never spoken the N-word. The African American experience of the South could not be correctly narrated without the inclusion of racial slurs to exhibit the racial inequalities that were, and still are, prevalent.

Megan Trochesset, a teacher at St. Martin High School in Ocean Springs, just miles away from Biloxi Public School District, has taught English for over 10 years, and is a To Kill a Mockingbird fanatic.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the first book that ever made me laugh – like a deep and full belly laugh,” said Trochesset, noting the humorous and serious elements of the book. “Having an English literature degree, I could only find a job at a private school. I had never taught before, but I knew if I started with Mockingbird, I could connect with my kids.”

Trochesset had mixed emotions when the nearby Biloxi schools decided to pull the book.

“I believe the teacher has the right to decide what novel works best in their classroom,” the English teacher said. “However, their decision to pull the novel made me sad because I know how much my students love it, and I think, more than ever, students need to be taught tolerance.”

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Megan Trochesset, a teacher at St. Martin High School in Ocean Springs

Being so close to Biloxi schools, the St. Martin High School teacher couldn’t help but imagine what she would do if the same problem occurred in her district.

“St. Martin has given me so much autonomy in my classroom,” she said. “I’m never going to work at a school that tells me what novels I can and cannot teach in my classroom. I would have raised hell until I got my way.”

Tenaysia Batey, a former St. Martin High School student, said the use of Mockingbird as a teaching tool is important.

“Having read the book and watched the movie, the language they used was really important,” Batey says. “I think it’s because of the message it sends and how brutally honest it is. It sort of made people uncomfortable, which was needed.”

Batey, an African American, can understand the heaviness and offense carried with the N-word. However, she too believes the uneasy feeling readers get when reading this language is justified and crucial in educating students about racial inequality.

Trochesset said she appreciate the book’s tolerance theme and agrees that crude language in the book is not meant to make others feel comfortable.

“The N-word is supposed to make the reader uncomfortable,” she said. “When the reader has that ill feeling, the book is accomplishing its task, which is to show the ugliness of racism. Harper Lee had to show the racism in order to condemn it.”

Trochesset thinks the continued success of the novel and its status as an American literature classic is largely due to its blatant condemnation of racism.

Arthur McMillan, the superintendent of Biloxi schools, issued a statement last week that said: “There are many resources available to teach state academic standards to our students. These resources may change periodically. We always strive to do what is best for our students and staff to continue to perform at the highest level.”

Having had To Kill a Mockingbird in my eighth grade curriculum at St. Martin High School, I can’t think of a better resource to educate young students about racial inequality than this book, but I’m no superintendent.

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