My volume of Harper Lee’s first written novel, Go Set a Watchmen, recently arrived. Like so many, I am conflicted about whether or not to read it. I’ve heard that Atticus Finch is not quite the perfect human being I imagined him. For me, heroes are few and far between, and I would be very disappointed to watch him fall from grace. But he is, after all fictional, and I have important matters to think about.
Like race. We need to talk about race, because, among other things, Black Lives Matter, and unfortunately too many African Americans are being subjected to violence. This year, 467 people have been killed already by police officers, approximately half of them being minorities. In the first 24 days of 2015, police in the U.S. fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales, combined, over the past 24 years. Black men are 6 times as likely as all white men to be incarcerated, often for drug related crimes even though research tells us that whites’ drug use is equivalent or greater to that of blacks.
With this being the reality of our children’s lives, we teachers have a moral imperative to connect our curriculum to their world. It can be unnerving and scary, but we must roll up our sleeves and push forward. The novels taught in our Humanities classes cannot only be exhibits of great storytelling or artistic expression. We must use great literature also to teach empathy, perspective and action.
Last year, I was lucky to be able to teach To Kill A Mockingbird to my 6th and 7th graders. I had not read the book since I was that age myself, and was struck by two things. First, I was acutely aware of how I read it this time from a parent’s perspective. I found myself deeply touched by Atticus as father; the limited, but deeply profound way that he connected with Scout and Jem was powerful. Someday, perhaps, I’ll write another blog focusing on the way he speaks with them, their shared love of reading, the way he modeled integrity.
Today, however, I would like to focus on the other part of the story I was struck by – how absolutely relevant the issues of race remain and are recognizable today. I taught a lesson, which could have been the whole unit, that I called “Maycomb to Ferguson.” At least that’s what I was calling it to myself as I first started planning the lesson. By the time I got around to teaching it there were 4 more high profile cases of police violence against African Americans (Tony Robinson – Madison, Wisconsin March 6 2015; Walter Scott – North Charleston, South Carolina April 4 2015; Tamir Rice – Cleveland, Ohio Nov. 22 2014; Freddie Grey, Baltimore April 12, 2014). So the lesson’s name was changed to “Maycomb to Baltimore” – the most recent example of racial tension. I expect by next year there will be a new city to highlight.
(Sadly, since the time I started drafting this blog another person has died in connection with her run in with the police. On July 10, 2015 Sandra Bland was stopped for a routine traffic stop that escalated in rough treatment and her arrest. Three days later she was found dead in jail in what police officials say was a suicide, but that allegation is being challenged by her family. Then yesterday, one year after Michael Brown will shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, Christian Taylor, 19, was killed in Arlington, Texas. And so it goes.)
As part of this lesson, we narrowed in on Chapter 15 of TKAM where Atticus and his kids prevent Tom Robinson from getting lynched. We then looked at the facts around the precipitating events associated with the Tulsa Race Riots. They are startlingly similar. For those unfamiliar with that historic event – and most people are, these riots were only recently included in Oklahoma history classes/textbooks — here are the facts:
The year was 1921. World War I had recently ended and a substantial African American population lived in the Greenwood district – a neighborhood so prosperous it was then known as “the Negro Wall Street.” However, there were ongoing racial tensions resulting from both the hardships of the Jim Crow south, as well as stress from rising unemployment resulting from WWI veterans returning to the labor market.
On May 30, a 19 year old African American shoe-shiner, Dick Rowland, entered the only elevator of the Drexel Building to use the only restroom blacks were allowed to use which was located on the top floor. The elevator operator on duty was Sarah Page, a white 17 year old. The two would have known each other as the restroom was the only one in the area that Dick would have been allowed to use. On that day, a man on the building’s first floor heard what sounded like a woman’s scream and saw a young black man run from the building. It is unclear what exactly happened between the two, although it is now generally believed to not have been a criminal activity. But then, word spread that Rowland had assaulted (the common term for rape at the time) the girl and tension quickly escalated. In the end, 35 blocks of African American residents and business were burned down, 800 people were treated for injuries and approximately 35 people were killed.
After discussing the similarities of Tom Robinson and Dick Rowland, the two alleged assailants, I had the class research a number of race riots that have occurred in the U.S. since that time. All this–the history of race riots, the recent high profile cases of police violence as well as statistics about the imprisonment of African Americans — was then connected to the work of Ohio State University Professor, Michelle Alexander and her book “The Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Professor Alexander’s fairly radical assertion is that the scope and impact of the current legal system is comparable to that suffered by African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that there is intentionality behind this legacy.
In some ways I felt good about the class I taught. The kids were highly engaged and deeply passionate about the topic. But the next day we turned our attention to characterization, or voice, or perspective, or some other useful lesson, but one not nearly as pressing. I felt my own white privilege at being able to briefly turn my attention to the topic and then set the discussion aside for expediency’s sake. We need to fight this urge to turn away. I believe schools must play an important role in our society’s reckoning with this topic. We must find the courage and the time to do so. I might prefer to think of Atticus Finch of a hero – that worked for me – but I can’t turn away from inconvenient facts just because they are unpleasant or make me uncomfortable. If we do, nothing will change.