To Kill a Mockingbird
The chains at The Statue of Liberty’s feet Abolition - Statue Of Liberty National Monument (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
Why Read To Kill a Mockingbird?
Roger Reeves is an award-winning poet. He has a PhD from the University of Texas, Austin, and is Associate Professor of Poetry at the University of Texas, Austin. His latest collection of poetry is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.
WHO ARE WE WITH OUR SIN?
After wealth, sin—the monitoring of it in ourselves, and in others—might be one of America’s most compelling obsessions.
Harper Lee centers this American obsession in the South, in Alabama specifically. She removes us from the conventional settings of the sin-obsessed (think: Boston, cobble-stone streets, winter circa 1740, snow swirling about a single-paned window that looks out onto a town square where a wooden stocks stands empty; think Anne Bradstreet’s poems, the Puritan minister Jonathon Edwards’ sermons, the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne or William Melville) and locates us in the South, where the Civil War—its particular shame and ghost—still swirls about the ankles and trees of those residing in Maycomb County.
In fact, that “ghost" rears children, participates in local politics, and decides which marriages are scandalous and which are not. By “ghost” I mean the ghost of, the hauntings of, prior decisions, laws, customs, wars, and mores. Often, the children of the town bear these legacies, trying to navigate the terrain of race, class, gender, sexuality, and propriety while blindfolded.
Here is the novel’s brilliance—it not only shifts the location but it shifts the obsession of sin, which is also an obsession with boundaries and borders, from adults to children. Lee places the difficult task of navigating the social codes and customs of a community not on adults but in the minds, bodies, and play of Jem, Scout, and Dill. In having children parse the complicated terrain of sin, and the South’s uneasiness with its past and present, Lee distances the reader from the conventional understanding of the South’s difficulty with its legacy of slavery and poverty. It is children of To Kill a Mockingbird who announce the porousness of boundaries around race and class, and their questions that expose the contradictions of boundaries, and the utter absurdity of sin as an organizing principle of community and society.
Scout, as narrator, upends binaries, troubling, challenging, and resisting the prison-yard of gender, race, and class. Through her, the reader is given permission to take nothing for granted. To ask questions. Who are we—as a community, as private citizens—when we don’t have the fictions of class or race to fall back on? What is normal and who gets to decide who is deviant, aberrant, unfit, or criminal?
Lee also executes a profound use of play in the novel. Scout, Jem, and Dill play-act out scenes from books, local lore, and history to pass the time, but their efforts do more than stave off boredom. Their play/ performances, fill-in absences, answer questions the adults can’t or won’t answer, organize the chaos around them, and serve as divination. That last is echoed by the adults who call their own play by other names: courts, gossip, custom, and whose practices are equally speculative and performative. Lee extends the use of play to the making of the novel. Lee’s dialogue, particularly that of Scout, playfully disassembles even as it creates new possibilities, new ways of being. In Scout I hear the possibilities of breaking open language, breaking open boundaries, defying the limitations that come along with custom and law. To Kill a Mockingbird asks us to consider the past as not past but present. Who are we with our sin and without our fictions to mask or erase them?
Questions and Understandings for a Unit
Students could explore the following questions:
Students could investigate the following understandings:
Sample Teaching Ideas
And Then What Happened? Gossip plays a major role in the novel: the children hear, challenge, and perform it.
Assignment Examine the following questions. When and why is gossip useful? What places do you encounter gossip — text chat groups, barbershops, school cafeteria — and what positive and negative functions does that serve?
Reading as Technology: Investigate the science of reading a book — how the unnaturalness of this for the brain makes us process differently than we do when we hear a story told, how we process differently because we are not sitting next to the person telling the story.
Assignment Acknowledge the challenge of reading — that every human brain has to train itself to do this unnatural task. What does it mean to slow down in our absorption of a text (re-read/visit the same section multiple times?) How do you teach yourself how to slow down?