Race, Sexuality, Literature, and Professor Carson’s Frustration

A colleague and a dear friend who teaches English in the cold state of New Hampshire, invited me into her class as a guest speaker recently. As she noted on her blog:

Carson Skyped into my classroom again this morning.  I invited him to come and give some background and context about Jim Crow and segregation to my freshmen as they read To Kill a Mockingbird…. I recognized that a big missing piece for my students and To Kill a Mockingbird was likely the aspect of culture; as mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly liberal Northerners, most of us have never really had to consider the legacy of segregation and racism in our everyday lives, and I think that understanding those things is crucial to really appreciating the gravity and importance of this novel.  Carson did a great job of laying the groundwork for the students’ understanding of the CULTURE of the country – not just the South, but the whole of the US – from Reconstruction on, and I think they left the class feeling like they understood a little better the way that culture informs the characters in Lee’s book….I could probably have done a decent job covering the material that Carson taught my kids this morning, but I was particularly grateful that he was willing to get up early (we’re a time zone ahead of him) and beam himself into my classroom.  I think that it’s important for my students to hear a lot of different voices.  I admire Carson’s knowledge and adore his style, and I’m grateful and honored that he agrees to share his time and talent so freely with me.

I am always honored when others, but especially highly intelligent and dynamic individuals such as Mrs. Chili, invite me to participate in a class discussion. In truth, and like so many of us my age who are not teaching this work, I have not read this book since 8th grade; however, because it is such a profound work of literature, it is one that few forget. Yet, one individual took a punch not only at Mrs. Chilli and other English teachers who teach this novel, but at the significance of Black History Month. Of course, I am sure you are wondering how one created such a juxtaposition. Well, this person “named” Cal writes:

You’re kidding, right? TKAM was written for white suburban northerners; it was largely designed to make them feel good about themselves. The book simultaneously explained southern whites in a self-serving manner while reassuring northern whites that goodness, they were so much better than the average small town southerner–and certainly good enough to appreciate Atticus Finch.

There are all sorts of reasons why your class doesn’t appreciate the book, but it’s not because they aren’t white southerners.

As for them not appreciating the legacy of segregation and racism; good lord, they’ve had it preached to them every February for nine years. They get it. They just don’t like the book much. Oh, well.

I think it would help if English teachers didn’t treat it like a religious text to be worshipped.

I felt both a moral and academic obligation to respond to Cal’s comment. Thus, in return, I stated that his point is interesting but highly flawed in its analysis. Let us start with black history month — or as he called it, preachy February. In a world that sees and adheres to the greatness of whiteness, blacks have had to embrace a “sense” of societal servitude in relation to the notion of second class; I am not talking about Jim Crow here; I am talking about the element of not being relevant in a white mainstream society. Thus, black folks created specialized literature to showcase why black is not heathen, but significant. Magazines such as Jet, Essence, and Ebony demonstrate that there is a community making progress and one that has achieved much — even in a world that still view the plight of black folks as ghetto. Sure, Cal can deny this — but in the end, he and others subscribe to this thought, too.

Seeing that many white folks are not reading the literature of black folks above, blacks found ways to break into the mainstream TV viewership. Shows like the Cosby Show told whites to back off. Stop typecasting a race due to perception. Blacks are educated and have a sense of moral value. February offers some attention to explaining black suffering, which often accompanies a corresponding emphasis on black redemption via a sense of being Afrocentric.

I have yet to meet an English instructor that used this work as the gospel. That is usually reserved for William Shakespeare. But, Cal clearly missed the point. The work teaches us about love, compassion, courage, and a sense of morality. Atticus Finch, the protagonist in the book, was a lawyer teaching folks in the deep South how to be and act human. He put his life on the line for honor, knowing that most people in Alabama might want him lynched. He represented the fact that there were good white people in Alabama. Many suspect that he represents Harper Lee’s father, a man she looked to for moral guidance in a world missing it.

It is a work about competition between white men and black men. Seeing that white male heterosexuals hold power, white men felt threatened by black men, especially sexually. Thus, they created the idea that black men were animals looking to rape white women. Hence, the white race cannot survive if such predators are allowed to compete for this resource…a white female. Cal, you missed the boat.

Here is Mrs. Chili’s response. She discusses the geographical point, which I failed to do:

I think it is absolutely reasonable to think that my students’ being mostly white, mostly affluent, and mostly Northern DOES have an effect on their ability to really appreciate the concepts that TKaM is asking us to consider.  When one is not presented with a thing, one doesn’t have to really think about it.  I am not ever in a situation where I have to worry about where my next meal is coming from, for example, so I never have to think about being hungry in any meaningful sense.  When we’re healthy, we do not consider the workings of our bodies; when our cars are working properly, we never think about all the things that have to happen to get us from one place to another.  It’s only when something is amiss that we start to think about how – and whether – things are working.  That my students don’t have a baseline for experience with issues of race and race relations IS  significant – if one has no experience with something, one cannot be expected to understand it without guidance and education.

I disagree with your claim that the novel was written to make white Northerners “feel better.”   On what, exactly, are you basing that assertion?  My own experience with this novel would tell me that it was likely more intended for the white Southern reader, actually; it seems pretty clear to me that the novel’s purpose is to inspire some self-critical thinking on the part of people who might share some beliefs and assumptions with the people of Macomb – that’s certainly the effect it had on ME, and it’s that thinking that I try to inspire in my students.

Carson said everything I could have about Black History Month.  I don’t think you’re correct in thinking that the students have been indoctrinated or preached to; in fact, I invited Carson into my classroom specifically BECAUSE my students didn’t know what Jim Crow laws were.  It’s a mistake to assume that people know things they may not know.

Finally, I’m offended by your implication that I ‘worship’ this novel – or any novel, for that matter.  I see these texts as touchstones – guides by which I can lead myself and my students through a more rich, diverse, and complex way of thinking.  Everything is up for discussion; nothing is sacred, and I resent your implication that I – or anyone else – hold any of these books above scrutiny.  To do that is antithetical to everything that every good teacher does.

Cal, you really DID miss the boat.


4 thoughts on “Race, Sexuality, Literature, and Professor Carson’s Frustration

  1. As a white Southerner, I agree with your analysis of the storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved the book the first time I read it and still love it today. Also, your point about Black History Month is well taken, I believe. The black community has been inundated with “white culture” for generations…but many in the white community are clueless about black culture. I have been fortunate over the years to have good teachers who introduced me to bits of black culture (such as “A Raisin in the Sun”…a terrific play) and have had good friends such as you who can share different perspectives. I enjoyed your thoughts on this subject.


  2. Thanks Young. I am with you; it is a great book. We as a society must loot at what we value and why we value things like diversity.

    Chili: Troll? I doubt it. He at least has heard of the book.

  3. Pingback: Thoughts for Thursday « The Blue Door

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