I’ll never forget the morning I left my house to go to school, only to see the N-word written in chalk along my walk to the bus stop.
Ironically, it wasn’t the first time that week I’d seen the word, as my English class had been reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Harper Lee’s exploration of civil rights and racism in the the 1930s won the author a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 as well as a spot on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged and banned classical books.
While I certainly remember turning the pages, shaking my head and blinking a couple of times at the words I was reading, I can’t remember thinking, ‘why would they allow us to read this in school?’
Between the racial slurs and the sexually explicit language, I certainly felt uncomfortable, and I can understand why parents would question subjecting kids to the language. But banning the book wouldn’t have changed that time in our country’s history, and it would not have stopped the boy down the street from writing the N-word in chalk near my house.
However, reading the book did help me learn how to talk about what I was thinking and feeling about the N-word. Ultimately, the book’s themes of hope, compassion and courage helped me and my family to have a real conversation with the boy and his parents about why that word matters—how it hurt me.
Isn’t that why we go to school anyway—to learn?
Some days I learned how to solve the square root of 64. Other days I learned what happens when you combine sulfuric acid with sugar. But on certain days, I learned about the everyday realities faced by real life African Americans similar to “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Tom Robinson. I learned about empathy through the character of Atticus Finch.
And on one day, I took the lessons from an English class socratic seminar and used my voice to teach a neighbor boy what it means to “climb in someone’s skin and walk around in it.”
Banned Books Week might be coming to an end, but tomorrow, non-fictional, everyday people will continue to face some of the challenges that are portrayed by the characters in many of today’s most commonly challenged books.
Unfortunately, 52 percent of the books challenged or banned in the last 10 years reflect realities faced by some of our most marginalized people groups, including people of color, LGBTQ communities and people with mental illness or disabilities.
Banning “To Kill a Mockingbird” won’t change the fact that we once lived in a time where use of the N-word was considered acceptable and normal at best.
Banning these books does take away the opportunities to increase awareness of both past and present injustices. It robs us of a chance to foster empathy and have meaningful conversation that brings about change.
This weekend, check out this list of banned books. Find something that makes you think. Better yet, find something to talk about over coffee.