This year Banned Books Week was held September 24 – 30. During that time period we are supposed to take time to think about the great books that have suffered at the hands of the insufferable. Maybe we will even read one of these books. At least I hope that you will. If that was a few weeks ago then why am I talking about it now? The school board in Biloxi, Mississippi has decided, right after Banned Books Week, to ban a book. “What book is it this time?” we all ask with a groan. It is To Kill A Mockingbird. The classic 1960 work by the late Harper Lee. This novel is no stranger to controversy and has been banned before. Shortly after its publication the novel was banned in Hanover County, Virginia because it featured a trial about a rape.
Great literature is not supposed to make you feel comfortable. It can be enjoyable, it should be challenging, it is almost always uncomfortable. Do you find comfort in Crime and Punishment? What about the Odyssey? Was 1984 a light read? Uncle Tom’s Cabin, now there was a cheery story that never challenges its readers. All good literature discomforts the reader. It stretches you. It confronts you with ideas, characters, and stories that move you out of your comfort zone and force you to confront something. That something could be a darkness that is within your society, your family, or within you.
Literature has a way of challenging us. Michael Gerson, writing an opinion piece in the Washington Post last year, said “Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the "little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." While not responsible for starting it, Lee was the little woman who made the values of the civil rights movement — particularly a feeling for the god-awful unfairness of segregation — real for millions.” How does Lee do this? She does it by showing us the ugliness of racism through the eyes of a child. Scout is an innocent. She doesn’t see the ills of society. We see those ills through her eyes. We see the ugliness of racism and hate through those innocent eyes. We see this and we are appalled at what we see. More than that we are appalled that a child must see these things. We don’t smile away the use of racial pejoratives. We see them in their stark ugliness when we compare them to the innocence of Scout. In this way white readers across the United States were forced to confront the ugliness of racism in our own nation.
To Kill A Mockingbird has the same impact today. We see the evil of racism. Not diluted in a way to make us comfortable, but in its stark and brutal ugliness. For nearly six decades this work of literature has confronted school children and adults with this ugliness. It asks us “what is in your heart?” Fifty-seven years later we are still discussing the treatment of African-Americans by the police. We don’t need to feel comfortable. We need to be roused from our comfort. If racist language makes you feel uncomfortable that is good. Don’t hide from it. Look it squarely in the eye. Great literature is a window into the past and into our souls. Allow the literature to awaken what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”