“To Kill a Mockingbird” Controversy


Lacey Jones, JT Washing

The acclaimed novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a  rite of passage for many high school students. Written by Harper Lee in 1960, the novel deals with issues of racial prejudice in the American South during the 1930s. Although it’s a staple in American High School English classrooms, there has been recent backlash here at Lakota West Freshman Campus against the novel for its sensitive topics and strong language, particularly the N-word. 

In 2020, at the Freshman Building, there were student complaints during the teaching of this novel. For instance, students have reported that a teacher said the N-word while reading quotes from the book. This made students feel uncomfortable, as the word carries an immense emotional and historical weight. This has made Lakota’s administration question TKAM’s place in the curriculum.

To find out more about the teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird at West Freshman and staff’s opinions of its place in Lakota’s curriculum, The West Press interviewed Mrs. Beth Lange, an English teacher at LWFS, and Mr. Elgin Card, the head of Diversity and Inclusion at the district.

Mrs. Lange is the English department head at West Freshman, as well as a teacher for Honors and CP English 9.  Due to backlash from parents, Lakota has considered alternative books to read over TKAM. Mrs. Lange expressed why she felt the novel was crucial for curriculum, stating “race has always been an issue in this country, but we’re not always aware of it. It helps us understand where we are today.” These issues include discrimination in relation to interracial relationships. The fact that “that used to be something that would have had people freaking out, for a black man to even have any conversation with a white woman would have led to his being lynched,” is one topic that puts racial issues into perspective. Mrs. Lange stated that “we have to create that context, and understand where we’ve been so we can understand where we are now, because we have made progress, but we also have a lot to do.” 

We were also interested in seeing her view of where the backlash on the novel was coming from. When the book was first published, much of the controversy stemmed from the topic of the inferred incestual relationship between Bob Ewell and his daughter. Today, it comes from the use of the N-word throughout the novel. When asked whether it is the content of the novel or the way teachers are teaching the novel that was the source of controversy, Mrs. Lange said 20% of the backlash comes from content and 80% comes from the way teachers are teaching it. Since the N-word invokes emotion and holds immense weight, Mrs. Lange educates her students on its history and of its weight through an extensive presentation. She stated she has never had a parent or student complain to her about the teaching of the novel. The solution to the backlash could be to inform the students, rather than brush over sensitive subjects. 

We also had the opportunity to interview Mr. Card, a former Principal at Lakota West who is currently the Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion here at Lakota. Mr. Card said he was in favor of To Kill a Mockingbird remaining in the curriculum, he just wants students to have choices. His dream scenario has “three books you can choose from. Everybody might choose the X, Y, or Z — that’s their choice, and then they have something they’re interested in, something they feel comfortable with, something they can still learn the same concepts with.” He also said the lessons a student can take from TKAM can vary from student to student. “While one kid might feel one way about it, another kid might feel a different way about it.” In the end, you get out of To Kill a Mockingbird what you put into it. That might be entirely different than another student, and that’s okay.

Ultimately, there is little chance To Kill a Mockingbird is going anywhere anytime soon. The thing most likely to change will be the way teachers teach it. A more careful approach, like what Mrs. Lange uses might be more prevalent soon. Or an alternative may become available, like what Mr. Card suggested. Either way, To Kill a Mockingbird will stay in the curriculum, N-word and all.