- One of the trademark texts of the American school system is Harper Lee's 1960 novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird".
For decades, it has been widely read in high schools and middle schools as a key anti-racist text.
But how did this novel with its Southern Gothic and Bildungsroman elements become a book that in 2006, the British said, "Every adult should read before they die ahead of the Bible."
That's a flex.
(bright music) "To Kill a Mockingbird" was written by Harper Lee and was loosely based on Lee's real life experiences.
The book tells a story of Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, a young girl growing up during the great depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, with her older brother, Jeremy AKA Jem, and her widowed lawyer father, Atticus Finch, a name that will be imprinted on the world forever.
Atticus is appointed to defend a black man named Tom Robinson, who is accused of sexually assaulting a white woman named Mayella Ewell.
This causes a lot of racial harassment towards the Finch family.
And at one point in the novel, Atticus has to stop an attempted lynching with the help of Scout and some other children, which is traumatic as hell.
Scout and Jem watched the trial from the Black section of the courtroom.
It is revealed that Mayella is lying and attempted to seduce Tom, but was beaten by her father who has been sexually abusing his daughter.
Despite being labeled as white trash, Tom is convicted for the assault and is later killed while trying to escape jail.
Mayella's father, Bob, tries to get revenge on Atticus by attacking Jem and Scout, but they are saved by the town recluse, Boo Radley.
Bob is killed from a knife wound from Radley, but it is covered up and Scout is changed forever by this experience as you would expect for having witnessed three murders within the span of a year.
So who was the mind behind the "Mockingbird"?
Born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama.
She was also the young daughter of a lawyer father named Amasa Coleman Lee.
One of her childhood friends and long-term writing companion was Truman Capote who visited their town during the summers.
They would end up living near each other years later in New York City.
After publishing "Mockingbird", Lee went on a bunch of book tours, worked in the film adaptation of her novel, and then just went on to lead a successful life of someone who published one awesome book.
The success of "To Kill A Mockingbird" was instant and surpassed the expectations of Lee tenfold.
Professor Alice Hall Petry wrote in the introduction of "On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections", "During the 80-year period between 1895 and 1975, 'Mockingbird' was the third bestselling novel in the United States and the seventh best-selling book of any kind.
Sales have not fallen off in the ensuing 25 years.
In 2001, for example, more than one million copies of 'Mockingbird' were sold."
It has been kept alive through its pop culture influence via the film adaptation and being regularly included in texts for middle school children.
Of course, just because a book is taught in school doesn't automatically make it popular.
People aren't as interested in something like "The Scarlet Letter".
And even that wasn't a huge success when it was released.
UNC Chapel Hill Professor Emerita Doris Betts ties its longevity to the very simplistic morality of the texts in her essay, "The Mockingbirds Throat: A Personal Reflection."
"In Scout Finch, Lee has produced a girl as appealing as Jo March of "Little Women", but stopped her story sooner than Louisa May Alcott stopped hers, and the point where initiation became new maturity.
By producing no other novels, Lee also has left readers feeling that this book has particular significance and that it contains all she had to say or all she could."
And with all of that symbolism and like discussion of race, it brings us to the question, What exactly is the value of teaching "To Kill a Mockingbird" versus an actual book about race written by a Black author?
Gerald Early, professor of African-American studies states, "I read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' the summer before I read Richard Wright's 'Uncle Tom's Children', a famous collection of stories by a Black writer about race in the South.
The difference was, of course, astonishing because the perspectives were so clearly different.
The Wright stories taught me two contradictory, but inescapable facts.
First, that books like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' were inadequate for me as a Black reader and failed in their fumbling literal way to give me Black people as I knew them to be.
And second, that I needed books like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' if ever I were going to understand the South as a construction of the White Southern mind."
"To Kill a Mockingbird" offers some semblance of safety for White readers who do not wanna feel alienated or called out by an anti-racist text.
They can see Scout and her father, Atticus, as a fair depiction of Southern progressivism and put the legacy of racism and all of its terrorist on other White people.
But it does that as professor Isaac Saney writes in the case against "To Kill a Mockingbird" by making Atticus a White savior and turning the Black characters and their community into pawns on Scout's journey.
"Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denial of the historical agency of Black people.
They are robbed of their role as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims, mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation."
Which brings us to the complex issue of Atticus Finch himself, one of literature's great White heroes.
What does the role he plays in the books actually say about the role White people play as allies?
Well, not much of anything.
According to bad twitter, Malcolm Gladwell in his essay, "The Courthouse Ring, Atticus Finch and the Limits of Southern Liberalism", "Finch will stand up to racists.
He'll use his moral authority to shame them into silence.
He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes.
What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside of the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama."
Atticus delivering inspired defense of Tom Robinson and protecting him has positioned him, especially in the eyes of White audiences, as the perfect ally until "Go Set a Watchman".
And it is at this point, I am obligated to have to discuss, "Go Set a Watchman'.
So remember who Harper Lee only had that one awesome book?
Well that changed in 2015 when "Go Set a Watchman" was released.
The book's road to publication was a controversial one.
The novel was rediscovered and Lee released a statement with Harper Collins saying, "In the mid 1950s, I completed a novel called 'Go Set a Watchman'.
It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman.
And I thought it a pretty decent effort.
My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout.
I was a first time writer so I did as I was told.
I hadn't realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer, Tonja Carter, discovered it.
After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication.
I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."
Some argue that this rediscovery was suspicious because there were some conflicting reports about the state of Lee's mental health.
And if this was ever meant to be published, but people were excited.
I mean, it's the sequel to one of the most popular, best-selling books of all time.
Why wouldn't they publish it?
And then it was bad, like really, really bad.
Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post said in her review, "It is the jar jar of classic literature.
It takes place in a beloved fictional universe and it's uncomfortably racist.
It has, at best, a scholarly interest.
I can't imagine that Lee would want it to represent her in the world.
I don't think it should have been published."
Michiko Kakutani for the New York Times specifically addressed in her piece the big point that got people upset, the fact that their beloved Atticus Finch was racist.
"Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting who says things like 'The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people'.
Or asks his daughter, 'Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?
Do you want them in our world?'
In "Mockingbird", a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as our national novel, Atticus praised American courts, as the great levelers, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
In "Watchmen", set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state to be left alone to keep house without the advice from the NAACP and describes NAACP paid lawyers as standing around leg buzzards."
This was a really awkward moment to be an Atticus.
People were betrayed.
It was the last season of "Game of Thrones" level of distraught.
Their Khaleesi turned fascist so quickly and without warning.
Some people like (indistinct), a writer and educator, saw this is another reason why "To Kill a Mockingbird" is not that ideal of a text to teach about anti-racism, not simply because it was a very White voice on Black oppression, but also elements of classism on which kind of White people are to blame for the situation in Jim Crow America.
Lee is certainly not the first Southerner to blame poor Whites for racist violence in the South, it's a practice with its own long history.
In 1932, the well-known liberal Southern journalist, Gerald White Johnson, wrote in the then influential North American Review that, "Southerners with money in the bank do not lynch.
And that lynch mobs were usually composed of fellows who have not two nickels to rub together.
Those inexpressibly forlorn outcasts known in the South as the poor White trash."
There are however moments in the novel in which you see Lee falter in her attempts to make only poor whites responsible for the region's race problem and absolve fine families for the nature of things in the South when she acknowledges that both rich and poor Whites mistreat Black people.
"As you grow older", Atticus tells Jem, "you will see White men cheat Black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't forget it.
Whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."
But in the end, Lee reverts back to scapegoating Bob Ewell and other poor white trash.
For so long, "Mockingbird" was able to give White readers a story that teach them about racism, but also remove them from any accountability of perpetuating that system.
They had Atticus to show them that it wasn't all of them and "Watchman" took that away.
When I first read "To Kill a Mockingbird" for myself in college, I found it a very readable novel, and I got through it fairly quickly.
While well-written and definitely good, I found myself glad I didn't read it in school for school because I found myself asking the question, "Who is this for?"
It is not without merit, but it doesn't center Black characters or Black experiences, it simply observes them through Scout.
It is an introduction to empathy, but at a distance.
And that layer of separation is deeply felt, at least to me.
I don't think we had to stop teaching "To Kill a Mockingbird", but I think it should be followed up with a Bildungsroman that actually puts you in the space of a Black person rather than a White child.
And also please stop naming your children after fictional characters.
It's very hard for every Khaleesi out there right now.
At least wait until the series is over.