Tuesday, October 23, 2018

To Kill a Mockingbird – the latest victim of the cultural appropriation canard

The Peel District School Board has decided the classic young adult novel To Kill a Mockingbird is “a racist text” written from a “white supremacist” perspective, that it’s “oppressive” and inflicts “violence” on black readers. Anyone who’s read the novel knows this is a slander, that actually Mockingbird smacks down racism as the dehumanizing curse it is.

So what gives?

Answer, the author of Mockingbird was white. Therefore, she was a racist – or so current identity politics would have us believe. White people shouldn't write a novel about racism; any such novel is itself racist or, at the very least, it's suspect. Always. Even if the content {as with Mockingbird} is clearly and explicitly anti-racist.  It's who's writing that counts, because according to this ideology, race defines us. Black or White – that’s what really matters. 

Does this way of looking at things sound racist to you? It does to me, but it’s the current orthodoxy in how schools look at “equity” issues – and it’s what they’re teaching our kids.

Mind you teachers in the Peel Board can go ahead and teach Mockingbird – if they dare – though if they do, they should teach it through a “critical,” “anti-oppression lens” meaning, they should teach it as if it’s a racist, white-supremacist text, because you know, it was written by a white woman.

Rosie Dimanno – a writer I always admire even when I disagree with her – nails it in this column for The Toronto Star….

“Latest anti–To Kill a Mockingbird campaign rings as hollow as the rest” 
by Rosie Dimanno (original here)

“To Kill a Mockingbird is a text that requires deep knowledge of anti-oppression pedagogy so that educators can create learning spaces for students to interrogate the theme of racism as well as biases, assumptions and stereotypes around Black peoples within history and contemporary contexts.”
Harper Lee, who knew a thing or two about words, would never have written such a sentence.
The late author was not a pedagogue nor a polemicist.
Instead, she produced a classic novel about racism in the American South and a small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a poor Black man falsely accused of raping a white-trash woman.
The book, for which Lee was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, has never ceased to draw controversy. At first the objections arose from accusations of immorality and “filthy” content. More recently, To Kill a Mockingbird has been condemned for its racial slurs — the N-word is mentioned 19 times — the purported harm it causes to racialized students when taught in schools and employing a “white saviour trope,” making Atticus Finch the hero of a story told through the eyes of his daughter Scout, as both a child witness and adult narrator.
In one of the earlier ban-the-book decisions by a Virginia school board, Harper herself responded with a saucy young letter to her local newspaper: “Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.”
I wonder the same thing about Poleen Grewal, associate director of instructional and equity support services at Peel District School Board.
All these years after its publication, a seminal moment in fiction for its sympathy towards Black people, its stinging rebuke of a racist justice system and a clarity of moral thinking, a righteous pedant has taken up the anti-Mockingbird crusade again, dancing on the head of a didactic pin.
The core fault of the novel, Grewal argues in a dense four-page directive aimed at Peel teachers, is that the story is told through a privileged white person’s eyes. Because privilege is allegedly the common denominator of all white people. It just is.
It is not.
Harper Lee
This case, specifically, presupposes that white people are incapable of empathy or intellectual rigour; that teachers, in particular, can’t be trusted to present the novel in a way which invites frank discussion. 
It asserts that, as critical thinkers, we are slaves to the colour of our skin and a Black middle-school student — the novel is typically taught in Grade 8 or 9 — can intrinsically have no point of human commonality with a white middle-school student.
“The use of racist texts as entry points into discussions about racism is hardly for the benefit of Black students who already experience racism. This should give us pause — who does the use of these texts centre? Who does it serve? Who do we continue to teach them?”
What’s being declared here is a white appropriation of Black experiences, at a time when the canon of appropriation has become poison in the arts. It defies the power of imagination, the ability — indeed, the necessity — of walking in another person’s shoes, of inhabiting a character’s life outside what is personally known.
There are, in fact, few writers who embrace that doctrine, but those few have co-opted the conversation, abetted by academics of rigid, radical beliefs.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful, tender novel about childhood and valour and the gaining of wisdom, hung on a plot that encompasses brutality — not just the dignified suffering of Tom Robinson, the defendant, but also the shut-in Boo Radley, who rescues Scout and her brother Jem from a vicious revenge assault. In the telling, Lee delves into the swamp of ignorance and poverty and a race-based class system, showing how the citizens turn to racism to mask their own shame and low self-esteem.
That’s certainly a teaching moment which should resonate against the backdrop of today’s surging nativism.
“White writers write from their own schemas, their own perspectives and white supremacist frameworks that reflect the specificity of their culture and history on racialized peoples.”
Again, a theory, a withering bias, projected as fact.
Book-banners and book-burners have always cloaked themselves in piety and propriety. They see themselves as gatekeepers, parsing ideas, weighing conventions, morally superior and intellectually paramount. But it’s just another form of jackboot orthodoxy masquerading, pedagogically, as an elevated conscience.
That’s precisely the mob mentality which continues to challenge for removal from schools and libraries such quality titles as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s TaleLives of Girls and Women by Nobel laureate Alice Munro, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite RunnerBeloved by Toni Morrison, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Color PurpleThe Catcher in the RyeOf Mice and Men, even the Bible.
All have appeared on the American Library Association’s annual list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books and still do so. To Kill a Mockingbird has rarely slipped from the list.
All have been condemned as, variously, too vulgar, too anti-Christian, too profane, too graphic, too “politically, racially and socially offensive,” too anti-family, too anti-authoritarian, too promoting of a “homosexual agenda.”
Doubtless Grewal would lose her nut at being slotted into the same bracket of literary witch-hunters. But it is all of a piece, all of the same stern ideology.
As of this moment, Grewal’s treatise remains a directive only. Yet it’s abundantly clear that teachers will have to justify themselves to the board if they do include To Kill a Mockingbird on the curriculum. And it’s not as if the very types of novels that Grewal would prefer, by Black identity authors, are being excluded.
Lord help the teacher if an offended parent complains about To Kill a Mockingbird.
There’s no evidence here the board will have his or her back.
“The idea that banning books is about censorship and that censorship limits free speech is often decried as a poor reason to keep the novel on schools’ reading list as its racist themes make it violent and oppressive for Black students.”
Beware word-shapers who twist the meaning of censorship.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

Note: You can read my essay on cultural appropriation here and my essay on "white privilege" here. ~Brian

1 comment:

  1. Last night (Tuesday Oct. 23) "To Kill a Mockingbird" was acclaimed America's favourite novel as part of the PBS Greatest Read challenge.
    That was my choice and remains my favourite novel. It is one that every student, every person should read.
    Bah to Grewal. Lee's book shines as a light against racism.


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