Above - Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird, released in 1962.
Earlier this month, the head of English at James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh decided that his department should no longer be teaching Harper Lee’s seminal novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, because it contains outdated views on race and promotes a “white saviour narrative”. Sir Geoff Palmer, the Chancellor of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, and Scotland’s first black professor, was quick to say how silly this was. Don’t bin To Kill a Mockingbird, he said: “keep it, teach it, explain it.” And if we do bin it, where does this binning stop. Is Othello next?
I’m with the professor. One of the main reasons we study classic literature after all, is because it offers a window on the past: how people thought, what their world was like, why they acted as they did. Great novels bring the past alive in a way history books never can and give us insights we’ll never get from philosophers. As our guide to Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel shows, it is (though it’s much more than this too) a searingly vivid portrait of racism in America’s Deep South in the 1930s. And let’s not forget: Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who risks everything to defend the African American Tom Robinson, fails in his attempt to prove Robinson’s innocence. Just as he almost certainly would have failed in real life.
The head of English at James Gillespie’s doesn’t like the fact that the N-word is used more than 40 times in the novel. But, again, this is perfectly realistic. Does he think the children he teaches have zero imagination and can’t understand that Harper Lee is not condoning this, but condemning it? And isn’t the point of teaching to explain points like this?
Nearly half a century ago, in 1975, the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, took issue with Joseph Conrad’s short, great anti-colonialist novel, Heart of Darkness, asserting that Conrad was a “bloody racist” whose black characters were dehumanised and degraded. Few postcolonial writers shared Achebe’s view. As they were not slow to point out, given that this novel was written in 1900, the heyday of Victorian imperialism, Heart of Darkness, for its time, was amazingly progressive in its attitudes and full of uncomfortable truths which resonate strongly today. It was then, and still is, a novel which has become almost synonymous with anti-racism and anti-colonialism, and rightly so.
There’s a simple point at issue here, which is that it’s ridiculous to keep judging the past by the standards of the present. As the narrator of The Go Between says, the past is a different country, “they do things differently there”. English teachers who can’t understand this, and who start ditching books and plays because they contain outdated attitudes, and don’t exactly chime with our modern sensibilities, really ought to be doing something else.
Written by Jolyon Connell