The internet has recently been weighing in on the literary merits of Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird, published fifty years ago last week. Kathleen Parker defended Harper Lee in response to Malcolm Gladwell's negative 2009 article in the New Yorker (although why anyone would take anything Malcolm Gladwell says about fiction seriously is beyond me); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a beautiful paean to the novel in the Guardian; Huffington Post's Jesse Kornbluth made the rather startling claim that the novel is being criticized by men because Atticus Finch is "a feminized man"; Allen Barra, writing in the Wall Street Journal, refers to Atticus as "a repository of cracker-barrel epigrams" and asserts that TKAM's "bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated;" and at Racialicious, blogger Macon D. wrote an articulate indictment of the ways in which the novel "encourages today's well-meaning white people to think that 'America is a very different place' than it was when Lee wrote her novel, and thus to think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago."
The fact that so many people have so much to say about the book is an indicator of the massive impact it's had on American culture. Harper Lee herself noted in 1964, somewhat poignantly, that she "never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.'... I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."
To Kill A Mockingbird has sold more than thirty million copies by some estimates, and according to a 1988 report, was required reading in three-fourths of American high schools. It's a book that has, inarguably, entered our national consciousness, and I'd bet money that it's the only book about race many white Americans have ever read. But what's so particular about the book is not its story, its style, or its characters, but the extraordinary baggage attached to it: the way it's come to stand in for a period of American history. One can hardly imagine that Lee intended for her semi-autobiographical work to become the final word on race for most white Americans; and yet, somehow, it has. Is the novel problematic? Of course, although I think, like any well-written work of fiction, it resists the over-simple reading of "dated; racist." But the apparatus we've constructed around it certainly allows white people -- as Macon D. points out -- to soothe themselves with the thought that racism is something that happened in one part of the country, long ago; and, thanks to the heroic activities of noble men like Atticus, all of that is over now. Because Lee spoke out, we don't have to. Thus we engage in the collective self-delusion that reading To Kill A Mockingbird somehow absolves us of our own responsibility to work toward ending racism in the present day: We thought about it, it was sad, and thank goodness that's all over now.
The question is not whether TKAM is flawed (I defy you to find a book that isn't) but why for the last fifty years we've allowed a coming-of-age novel by a white southern author about a white southern child to represent the whole narrative of the segregated South. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that publishing remains effectively closed to writers of color; publishers routinely erase faces of color from their covers; American schools move toward diversifying their reading lists with glacial slowness or write the history of people of color out of their curriculums altogether (here's looking at you, Texas); and most white Americans are still utterly incapable of having honest, open, and accountable conversations about racism. When we as a culture cannot agree that, say, randomly arresting brown people on the streets of Arizona is a problem, we're in trouble. And when we, as a culture, are content to read a story about a little white girl growing up and pretend it's somehow representative of the lived experience of people of color in this country, it's no wonder we're unable to move forward.
Perhaps To Kill A Mockingbird is so obscured by the politics writ large across it that the novel's text has become illegible; but if that's true, the fault lies not with the book but with its readers. The answer is not to strike it from the record, but to open our classrooms to other voices and other stories. To do that, we have to demand more: of publishers, of school administrators, of teachers, of students, of ourselves. We have to demand that what we read reflects the faces of the people around us, not just the person in the mirror. There's no one book on this earth capable of doing that work on its own. And that, I think, is something Harper Lee would agree with.