Oxford, university community weighs in on ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ controversy

Posted on Nov 2 2017 - 8:00am by Lasherica Thornton

Through the eyes of the young Scout Finch, an audience reads about society, hatred, prejudice in the criminal justice system and the American South in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” 

More than half a century after its publishing, Biloxi Public School District banned the book from its eighth-grade curriculum in early October because of offensive and derogatory language. After a national outcry declaring the importance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a critical look at racism, offensive language and discrimination, Biloxi officials decided parents must sign a permission slip to allow their child to read the novel. It is no longer a required part of the curriculum.

According to the Washington Post, the school district removed “To Kill a Mockingbird” because several people felt uncomfortable due to racist language in the novel. 

Oxford High School principal Bradley Roberson said he is aware of the controversy in Biloxi, but Oxford High School is not following the example set in Biloxi. “To Kill a Mockingbird” will continue to be a tenth-grade curriculum text in Oxford School District. 

“Here at Oxford, our teachers and students do a great job of communicating the themes of the book and the importance of what that book brings to light as far as some of the critical issues in our society,” OHS assistant principal Chandler Gray said. “We haven’t had any issues as far as people worried about anything in the book. Teachers do a great job of teaching the curriculum and do a great job of teaching that subject area. We certainly try to do anything to educate our kids in any way possible.”

Oxford community members have defended the novel, saying it depicts an important part of history.

“From the book, I gained a representation of the past although the book was fictional,” Haley Williams, junior biology major and African American studies minor who read the book while in high school said. “It gave me a sense of the justice system and how race plays a part in how things are perceived. It’s important because our society is still reaping from such a poor justice system today.”

Williams said the past will forever be relevant and literature, fictional or not, serves as a reflection of the era it was written in.

“I feel like gaining that sense is the point of the book,” said Williams. “It isn’t meant to make you feel good. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.”

Deborah Barker, an English professor with a Ph.D in English from Princeton University, has taught at Ole Miss since 1990. She said she’s rarely in favor of banning books and that the debate over “To Kill a Mockingbird” is nothing new. 

Not long after the book’s debut, 11-year-old Barker said she wanted to read it, but her teacher wouldn’t approve because it dealt with rape. 

“So, this is not something new. I guess, it keeps happening,” Barker said. “I think if you’re going to do that, there’s such a long list of novels you’d have to ban. Because race has been such an integral aspect of American literature, I think the whole point of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and many other works is to address it and to critique it, and if you pretend it doesn’t exist, then you don’t get rid of the problem”

Barker stressed the importance of recognizing issues such as racism and obscene racial slurs. 

“I don’t see the value in, as I said, pretending that these aren’t real issues, that people don’t talk this way, that it doesn’t go on today, that it didn’t in the past,” she said. “How are you going to write about the 1930s, that period in the American South and pretend like there were no harsh words, that people didn’t use that language?”

As a part of academia, she said she thinks people need to read it but she emphasized the need to critique it as well. 

“Its problematic. How do you deal with racial slurs in literature?” Barker said. “I don’t use the language, myself. If it’s in the passage and it’s an important passage, I can’t censor the text because it’s in there because of the power of it and it’s there to make a point.”