Roy Exum: The Biloxi Blunder

Sunday, October 15, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In Biloxi they may be talking about the fresh 400,000-gallon oil spill in the Gulf but suddenly the national clamor is descending with fury on the school board. This week – right in the middle of an eighth grade reading project – the board halted the reading of the book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and urged the students not to read the rest of Harper Lee’s famous novel. School board vice president Kenny Holloway said the district had received complaints that some of the book's language "makes people uncomfortable."

Exactly. That is what the book is intended to do. Or, as the wonderful Atticus Finch said in the manuscript when it was first published in 1960: “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a negro comes up is something I don’t pretend to understand.”

The real reason the Biloxi School Board dashed the lesson plan in mid-stride is because the students had not yet gotten to the page where the “N-word” assaults every reader’s senses. You see, the tone of the book is set in the mid-1930s in south Alabama. It is built around a lawyer, Atticus Finch, who was appointed by a judge to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman.

When it was first published in 1960, I vividly remember my parents requiring every child in our family to read it. I gulped it down in two days and to this day it is one of the best books I have ever read. We talked about it for weeks at the dinner table.

Since then 30 million copies have been sold and it has earned the Pulitzer Prize. In the past 57 years the book has never gone ‘out of publication’ (that means they still print it every day in 48 different languages) but its biggest moment came in 1991 when a survey by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress rated it only behind the Holy Bible in books that were most cited as ‘making a difference.’

That is why “To Kill A Mockingbird” is far and away the most widely read book in the history of modern-day education. The book is a great tool for lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice. As word of “The Biloxi Blunder” raced across the nation’s media, Arne Duncan, who was U.S. Secretary of Education under Obama, sent a message on Twitter yesterday: “When school districts remove ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ from reading lists, we know we have real problems.”

Yes, the racial slurs, the profanity and the raw talk about rape placed the book at No. 21 in the American Library Association’s list of ‘most challenged’ books between 2000-2009 but there has to be the ‘bad’ exposed for the reader to soak in the good. As one critic wrote, “In the twentieth century, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism."

The Biloxi School Board is about to change its mind.

* * *

AN EXCERPT FROM THE BILOXI SUN-HERALD

(Here is part of an editorial that appeared in the Biloxi newspaper on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017)

Acting as if race is no longer a factor in our society is part of the problem. Acting as if it is too difficult or offensive to talk about is part of the problem.

We have not, in fact, overcome racism.

The racists in our society must be confronted. They must not be allowed to assume our silence is acquiescence.

In the book, the Finch children, Scout and Jem, grow when they confront evil. They discover prejudice and overcome it. And that is because their father, Atticus, treats them maturely and guides them in the right direction.

The Biloxi school system should follow his example.

We hope the parents who objected have a change of heart, contact the school and ask the officials to put the book back in the curriculum. And, if they don’t, the school system should find an alternative for the offended children.

The majority of the students shouldn’t be forced to miss this opportunity for the sake of those offended. And if the school board does not relent, we urge parents in Biloxi to introduce their children to this wonderful novel and answer what are apt to be some uncomfortable questions.

* * *

FROM THE BOOK, ‘TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’

Atticus Finch: There are some things that you're not old enough to understand just yet. There's been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man.

Scout: If you shouldn't be defending him, then why are you doing it?

Atticus Finch: For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again.

[he puts his arm around her]

Atticus Finch: You're gonna hear some ugly talk about this in school. But I want you to promise me one thing: That you won't get into fights over it, no matter what they say to you.

royexum@aol.com


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