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October 1, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird Characters and the Absence of Agency

Facing History's Kaitlin Smith examines the history of Harper Lee's masterpiece and contemplates what's missing from To Kill a Mockingbird characters.


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To Kill a Mockingbird Characters and the HIstory of a Banned Book

Banned Books Week is here once again—and it invites us to reflect upon the narratives that we choose to amplify within our communities and those we choose to silence. One topic that continues to provoke discussion and controvery is the To Kill a Mockingbird characters and their journey exploring injustice, racism, and social inequality.

In 2018, PBS identified Lee’s novel as the “most-loved” book in the United States in the Great American Read—an eight-part television series that celebrated popular texts based on a national survey that examined “how and why writers create their fictional worlds, how we as readers are affected by these stories, and what [the] 100 different books have to say about our diverse nation and our shared human experience.” 

In explaining Mockingbird’s triumph over all other titles, host Meredith Vieira said: “To Kill a Mockingbird is a mirror of who we are in all our complexity. It shows us at our worst and it ends tragically, but it also offers a way forward. For this honesty and hopefulness, the book is and deserves to be our very best-loved novel.”  

But if we examine the enduring controversy surrounding whether Mockingbird should be taught in schools, a more complex picture emerges. Does the book actually mirror us in all of our complexity? And who is included in and excluded from the “we” in Vieira’s statement?

Mural depicting to kill a mockingbird characters
Mural depicting actors in the play and book, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Located in historic downtown Monroeville, Alabama. Library fo Congress

To Kill a Mockingbird Characters, Jim Crow and a Missing Perspective

Set in a small town in the Jim Crow South, Mockingbird is among the most challenged and banned books in the American literary canon despite its continuing popularity amongst much of the reading public. While some schools have banned the book out of concern for the disproportionate emotional burden its racist language places on black students, others insist that teaching the text is a crucial component of facing our collective history of racial injustice. But what is often obscured in these debates are more fundamental questions about why this book continues to be held up as the definitive literary account of racial injustice.

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Mockingbird is a text that is narrated by a young white child whose understanding of the racist world around her is facile at best. And her idealized portrayal of the story’s apparent hero—a white lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman—leaves little room for an account of the black characters’ agency on their own behalf. In fact, the experiences and perspectives of the black characters are all but absent from the text as the white characters’ feelings, anxieties, and false sense of heroism fill its pages. 

To Kill a Mockingbird Characters and a Contemporary Perspective

Regardless of whether a given school district elects to teach Mockingbird, the popular notion that Vieira articulated—that this text delivers an indispensable depiction of “who we are in all our complexity”—needs to be disrupted wherever it is read and discussed. As Dominican-American educator and #Disrupt Texts co-founder Lorena Germán wrote of Mockingbird, “[w]ithout interrogating...its flaws, or digging deeper, teachers uphold the racism it presents.” And one way that we must dig deeper is by ensuring that the voices, needs, and experiences of people who have actually been targeted by racism are brought from margin to center. 

And yet, data shows that the kinds of narratives that actually do center people of color can be hard for some Americans to swallow. The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom reports that the vast majority of library resources that were challenged or banned in 2018 were materials that affirm the experiences of marginalized groups of people—among them, texts that “candidly portrayed the injustices and inequality experienced by persons of color.” A key example is Angie Thomas’ 2017 book The Hate U Givea text that has been challenged repeatedly for providing a snapshot of the epidemic of police brutality waged on black communities from the perspectives of black characters themselves. Thomas’ book is one of many texts to consider pairing with Mockingbird in the classroomand offers educators a chance to explore the continuities between contemporary police brutality and the violence that prevailed under Jim Crow.

Check out Share My Lesson's discussion guide resource for The Hate U Give.

With an understanding that Mockingbird remains a central part of the curriculum in many schools around the United States, Facing History continues to deliver resources to help educators navigate this text thoughtfully and deliberately. In our Teaching Mockingbirdresource, we deliver a breakdown of how to teach each section of the text; relate essential information concerning the historical context; surface African American voices absent in the book’s narration; and recommend strategies to help students examine the construction of their own identities in relation to the themes of the book.

Despite the limitations and complexity of Mockingbird as a teaching instrument, we maintain that with the right tools and support, educators can promote critical thinking and equity when they bring this text into the classroom. We invite you to use our Teaching Mockingbird resource as you plan your lessons and encourage you to share your own creative approaches to teaching the text in the comments.

Win a class set of To Kill a Mockingbird in Share My Lesson/First Book's sweepstakes here.

For more free lesson plans and resources on To Kill a Mockingbird characters and their story, explore Share My Lesson's curated collection.

This article was originally published by Facing History and Ourselves and can be found here.

Facing History and Ourselves

Facing History and Ourselvesis a nonprofit international educational and professional development organization.Its mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry.

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