A White Woman Addressing Racial Complexity in To Kill a Mockingbird

Though I’ve taught To Kill a Mockingbird four of the past five years, before this year, it had never occurred to me that the text was anything but a condemnation of discrimination, a civil rights book, a story of one noble man – a white man – helping, or trying to help, another noble man – a black man – told poignantly through a young girl’s innocent lens.  

Of course, I’d stumbled through the challenge of the extensive and complicated use of then word in the text.   The last time I taught the book, I am embarrassed to admit that – completely inadvertently – I had an African American student reading aloud as we came across the word for the first time.  He stopped stone cold in his reading.  I told him, ridiculously, “It’s OK to say it.  In the historical context, it’s OK,” I said.  He looked at me as if I were nuts, and proceeded to say “that word” every time he came across it in the passage.  A precedent had been set by the African American student in the classroom and that was how we proceeded.  Clumsily and awkwardly and ridiculously for the next 397 pages.

When I started teaching seventh grade English at The Potomac School this year, knowing that To Kill a Mockingbird was on the reading list, addressing the complexity of the language in the text wasn’t topic A on my mind.  Luckily, Mike Fishback, a colleague in the English department, and Dave Grant, the director of diversity and inclusion, were three steps ahead of me, and it turned out they had been in conversation about the challenges of the text since the previous spring.  We agreed that the three of us would meet to plan how we would approach the text.  

It was in that meeting that Dave revealed what a miserable experience he had had as a student reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  I won’t be able to do justice to the pain he experienced as a young black student reading the book – but I’ll try to capture just a bit of it.  The n word was part of the problem – but only a small part of the problem.  The black man, Tom Robinson, is an almost completely silenced character.  He has but one way to be saved: through the brilliance and nobility of the white man, Atticus.  Tom is a kind and sympathetic character, but he is voiceless – and simple.  Actually, none of the black characters in the book has voice; even Calpurnia, a fairly major character, has few lines and little perspective, nuance, or complexity.  Dave Grant, sitting in his English classroom many years before, hated To Kill a Mockingbird.

Would it be possible to do any better? Two white teachers, a predominantly white student body, the same text?  

After much conversation and with a fair amount of trepidation, we decided to address the n word explicitly before it first appears in the text.  Through a PowerPoint presentation, we spent time contextualizing the word – explaining both the historical context and the evolution of the word and comparing the use of the word to other derogatory and politically and socially charged words such as oriental, bitch, and faggot.  We examined the recent reprinting of Huckleberry Finn, which deleted the word from the text, and we presented some scholarly analysis of this rewriting of the text. 

Believe me, the kids were a bit taken aback by hearing their teachers use such words in the classroom. I am confident that my students’ thinking about the language was at a vastly more sophisticated level than it ever had been before.  And I think they internalized the complexity of “that word” – and other, perhaps more commonly used derogatory words – in an exponentially more sophisticated way than my students had in the past.  I worry a bit about the sensationalism of what we presented and about the shock value effect. We took the kids to a pretty out there place, and then came circling and crashing back to our more traditional classroom pretty quickly. But, I look back at what I’ve done in past years, and that feels reckless to me now.

Much less dramatically, we also tried to address the silencing of the black voice in the text.  In class discussion, we highlighted the narrowness of perspective given to virtually all black characters in the novel.  And we offered a project where students could rewrite and present a scene narrated through the eyes of a different character. Many students chose to write from Boo’s and Atticus’s perspectives; many also chose to write through Tom’s and Calpurnia’s perspectives.  They did not mince words. 

We may have made some progress in what needs to be the next phase of achieving a truly inclusive curriculum, in which we cannot assume that traditionally civil-rights-minded texts are working for our students, where we do more than lean into discomfort in these conversations, but where we jump in, full throttle, and face the hardest conversations.

What we did really seemed to work.  After the PowerPoint presentation and the subsequent first reading of the n word, I asked my students to write a journal entry answering the question, “How did you feel when you first came across the word ‘nigger’ in the text?  What effect did the word have on you?”  One student wrote, “I was not surprised because we had talked about it in class.  We should not run from the word in a school environment, especially because when you’re in school, you are supposed to learn how to deal with all kinds of uncomfortable situations that should prepare you for real life.”  And another wrote, “The characters in the story are reenacting what life was like back then, and you can’t leave out things just because they are bad.”

I was particularly encouraged to see my students, only 13 years old, digging into their own racial identities and their own discomfort as they grappled with racial complexity in the book.  One white boy reflected, “These words are needed in books, even if people feel uncomfortable reading them, like me.”  He wrote that sitting across the room from an African American girl who wrote, “Personally they don’t bother me, even though I’m black.  If they weren’t used, I think it would be like trying to mask something in history that without a doubt happened. I don’t think those words should be forgotten about or not mentioned because of how much they stung.”

And I was encouraged to see the passion and voice the students brought to their reflections.  A chord had been struck. And they were really thinking.  One raw and open boy took the moment to reflect on the educational system, writing: 

"Some schools look down upon and even ban To Kill a Mockingbird because some of the language used in this book is offensive.  They say ‘It’s poisoning the children’s lives,’ and ‘They shouldn’t have these words in their vocabulary.’  They think they’re doing us a favor, but in reality they are just running.  Running from words that they feel are bad for children.  But why? Why do we feel that hiding something from children is better?  The real world doesn’t hide things from them. The real world doesn’t care that it may hurt them.  We need to stop hiding and let them know that these words exist. Because they can help them." 

Of my 65 students, 64 of them read like that.  

And then there was the 65th, from a dark-skinned boy in my class whose mother is Jamaican and whose father is Haitian.  He didn’t address the question exactly, but he took the opportunity to say what was on his mind.  He wrote, “It just gets kind of tiring to hear your teacher say the word ‘nigger’ over and over again.”  

I do believe we made some progress; teachers must try to approach this – and all – texts with greater awareness to the diverse experiences of the students in our classes.  But I fear there’s at least one boy in my class who would have all too much to discuss with the young Dave Grant.

Quincey Grieve

Quincey Grieve teaches 7th and 8th grade English at The Potomac School in McLean, VA.  Previously, she served as head of the Middle School at Sacramento Country Day School in California and The Field School in Washington, D.C., and she taught English and journalism at The Buckley School and the Marlborough School.  She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and their three children.