How a Mockingbird Can Kill a Legacy

Each morning after working on my maiden novel from 5 am to 8:30 am I do what I always do: heat some filtered water in my electric kettle, carry it to the bedroom with an empty large cup, and watch the early morning news shows for a mental respite — MSNBC’s Morning Joe being my favorite.

This Particular blustery New York morning, (which for the record is, Feb 27th 2020) went virtually the way I expected it to — with a horrifying discourse on the Coronavirus — and 45’s puerile unstatesmanlike approach to this exigent global concern.

But as the show was wrapping up, something else was added to the dismal start of the day, mayor Bill de Blasio was coming on Morning Joe, after a final commercial break, to declare February 27th “To Kill A Mockingbird Day” in New York City. A two-pronged celebration of Ms. Harper Lee’s perpetually extolled novel, and the new (Scott Rudin, Barry Diller) Broadway version that premiered in a one-off show, a few blocks downtown, at the city’s most fabled haunt, Madison Square Garden.

The un-contexed announcement before the commercial break was already enough to send my brow caving to the upper bridge of my nose, due mainly to my critique of Ms. Lee’s classic, under a modern literary perspective. But when de Blasio went on air (with the show’s lead actor, Ed Harris) and predicated his motivation to commemorate the Broadway play, on the electricity that powers Black History Month, befuddlement quickly mutated into utter disgust.

For some reason it seems unwittingly easy to accept the mayor’s proclamation as a celebratory triumph of literary achievement, in the name of racial valor — but to do so is to plant that flag in segregated soil, from a uniformed, insensitive and insouciant white perspective.

In my (and many others) opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird’s narrative has always been one aimed at the white community, with a hand full of mute black characters placed on the chess board for strategic insignificant purpose. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. Ms. Lee, (God rest her soul) as with any author trying to convey their ideas, had license to achieve her objective anyway she chose. However, it seems to me, if a work of art is to be infused into Black History Month, and lauded for its contribution to a discussion that has a black and white perspective, both perspectives should be explored in said work of art. Which makes this particular Jim/Jane Crow tale unbefitting of the mayor’s annual plaudit — and makes de Blasio’s decision to choose this work of art, indifferent to the African American artistic contribution to the historical racial plight — and its presence in the celebration of Black History Month.

How a man married to a beautiful black woman, (who is an artist in her own right) can make such a blatant faux pas, bypasses my cognitive attributes. However, when I consider that Spike Lee, an artist I have profound respect for, was at the Madison Square Garden premier, co-signing the celebration, I may be underestimating the blind spot American society has for To Kill a Mockingbird. A novel that has been venerated for so long, and so hard, a lot of people might not be willing to acknowledge that it has not aged well, and reads as if it were being published today on the yellowed 1960 stationery it was conceived with.

Thank God I can’t say the same for the academic community, a society of teachers and scholars that have witnessed firsthand the insidious effects Mockingbird has had in classrooms across the country, especially with African American students.

In an intriguing piece titled, Forget Atticus: Why We Should Stop Teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” — written by an English teacher named, Will Menarndt,  the author states, “(To Kill a Mockingbird has been) a fixture (on) school reading lists (for years), (and) as a high school English teacher, I have the chore of rereading the book annually, becoming more aware with each rereading of the damaging narrative it offers in dealing with present-day racism.”

Mr. Menarndt expounds even further: “The n-word is not just written on the page. As students read passages out loud, they say it to each other. They speak Atticus’s words, and they internalize his lessons. To call that experience “uncomfortable” is to disguise the pain of racial violence beneath a mask of euphemism.”

According to Mr. Menarndt “the school board in Biloxi, Mississippi, voted (in October of 2017) to ban To Kill a Mockingbird.” Journalist K.W. Colyard, confirms this fact in a conflicting piece he wrote for Bustle Magazine titled: “To Kill a Mockingbird” Shouldn’t Be Banned, But Students Deserve An Alternative To “White Savior Narratives.

In the essay Mr. Colyard interestingly asserts: “To Kill a Mockingbird is a fantastic work of literature, and removing it from a school’s curriculum because it makes white readers uncomfortable misses the point entirely. With that being said, Lee’s is not the best book to teach white kids about racism, because it grounds its narrative in the experience of a white narrator and presents her father as the white savior, in spite of the fact that he fails miserably at saving the man he was contractually obligated to rescue.”

No matter what pretzel of an opinion you identify with, the consistent salty, or provocative narrative seems to be, Mockingbird is no longer the go to whetstone one uses to intricately sharpen a humane racial perspective. And if that’s true, incorporating the tale into Black History Month, by chiseling a “To Kill a Mockingbird Day” into the New York city calendar, is a grotesque uneducated use of authority — especially when one considers the list of great dramatic titles (and novels), contributed by African American playwrights to the American literary cannon. Illustrious names like, Wilson, Hughes, Hansberry and Baraka quickly come to mind.

I hope I haven’t insinuated to any degree, and to anyone willing to engaged this correspondence, that Ms. Lee’s novel should be banned, and has no place on Broadway or in a nurturing intellectualenvironment and discussion, especially one that is willing to account for the skewed doctrines and culture of the brutal era that birthed the novel, and many others like it. If that’s how these passages read then I have failed as a writer.

That said, and since writing is hard and we are all capable of failure, let me end this essay with a statement that I hope clearly conveys what I am insinuating… A — “To Kill A Mockingbird Day”, dedicated in celebration of Black History Month, by way of  theatrical homage, cannot, and will not, ever, supersede an — “A Raisin In The Sun Day…” Not in the heart and mind of a true black art aesthete it won’t.