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How Harper Lee helped Canadians ignore racism in our own backyard

Harper Lee, a giant of American literature, died Friday. What do her life and her work mean to Canadians, as we move through the ever-shifting sands of racial politics and try to define and better understand our past and our present?

It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird on the Canadian psyche and on discussions about racism in Canadian schools over the decades.

First published in 1960 and dramatizing the story of Jean-Louise (Scout) Finch, her brother Jeremy (Jem) and their lawyer-father Atticus, who defends Tom Robinson – a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in Alabama in the 1930s – To Kill a Mockingbird made Harper Lee one of the most famous and most widely read American novelists of the 20th century. The language and the story are unadorned, disturbing and powerful. As community hatred intensifies toward her father, Scout confronts him with awful questions that only a child can ask: "What's rape?" and "Do you defend niggers, Atticus?"

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Over the last several decades in Canada, To Kill a Mockingbird has been studied constantly in high-school classrooms. In the last 10 years, all five of my children were required to read the novel in their high schools in Hamilton and Burlington, Ont. For the most part, in years that they read the book in school, it was the only text they were asked to read that examined racial injustice.

Brilliantly written with crackling dialogue and sharp, colourful characterizations – especially of the Southern white child Scout as she tries to make sense of the racism abundant in fictional Maycomb, Ala. – the novel became a staple of the Canadian classroom. Over the years, I have spoken at dozens of Canadian schools. I always ask what teachers are assigning students to read, and have been hard-pressed to find schools where To Kill a Mockingbird is not on the curriculum.

The novel denounces the entrenched racism in the American South of the early 20th century and has excited millions of readers who can identify with a young white girl who confronts evil in her own world. And that's a good thing.

However, the rote and ongoing use of To Kill a Mockingbird in the classroom points to our very Canadian-ness, and to our collective disinclination in Canada to examine racism and black history in our own backyard. How utterly convenient it is for Canadian children and adults from Dawson City to St. John's to read about racism in the Deep South of the United States in the Great Depression, and to avoid discussions about slavery, segregation, other forms of racial injustice as well as the civil-rights movement in Canada itself.

In my experience, one of the unfortunate offshoots of the success of To Kill a Mockingbird and its hold on our psyche has nothing to do with the author or the book, but rather, how we have allowed it to dominate our meditations – especially in school – about racial injustice in Canada.

Harper Lee cannot be blamed for her own success. She is not at fault for our own collective disinclination to look beyond her novel and acknowledge the existence and eventual rooting out of slavery in the Maritimes and present-day Quebec and Ontario.

We have only ourselves and our own reticence to confront history to blame for the fact that many Canadians to this day are more familiar with the American Civil War and with the life of Martin Luther King Jr. than they are with the struggle to eradicate racial segregation in Southwest Ontario and in Nova Scotia; the movement of the black Loyalists from New York to Nova Scotia in 1783 and then, for many, back to Africa a decade later; the movement of 600 blacks from California onto Vancouver and Salt Spring Island in the mid-19th century; the settlement of blacks from Oklahoma and Texas in the Canadian prairies at the outset of the 20th century; the waves of immigrants coming to Canada from Caribbean nations starting in the late 1960s, and the simultaneous bulldozing of Africville in the north end of Halifax.

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Black history in Canada is as complex and varied as the history of any racial or ethnic group, but we have lost sight of that, partly as a result of our obsession with evil in another era and another country.

Although it richly written and wonderfully drawn, To Kill a Mockingbird employs a narrative approach that has been used time and time again to address racism in North America. Racism and injustice is perceived through the eyes of benevolent whites, and the stories feature white characters over black. Indeed, in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as in Harper Lee's follow-up novel Go Set a Watchman, published in the last year of her life, black characters are minimally sketched. With the exception of Calpurnia, a black woman who works in the house of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee presents to her readers racism and evil, minus dimensional black characters.

I have no quibble with Harper Lee for writing what she did. She filled in the pages of her two novels with what she knew. She dramatized the world that she was best suited to mine and exploit. But it speaks volumes about Canadians and Americans that we have come to prefer novels and films about racism as seen through a white lens. Perhaps we think it is more palatable. Perhaps we find it more entertaining. Or perhaps we have not yet had the vision to read Harper Lee, to appreciate her, to learn about racial hatred as dramatized in To Kill a Mockingbird as well as in Go Set a Watchman, but to consider her books as just two volumes on what should be a massive, messy, detailed, complex library shelf. Let's leave Harper Lee on the shelf. But let's surround her with other books, and offer new perspectives and narrative approaches to Canadian students.

Occasionally, some have criticized her work for its use of racist language. But the characters wandering about rural Alabama in the 1930s in To Kill a Mockingbird and in the 1950s in Go Set a Watchman use the language of the day, and reflect the limitations and hatred of their time. There is no point in sanitizing or censoring books that make us feel uncomfortable.

Perhaps more than any other American writer of the 20th century, Harper Lee has forced us to consider – in Canada and the United States – one of the most enduring inequalities of our continent and our history. She has enriched us immeasurably. With her sad passing – at 89, in Monroeville, Ala., the model for the fictional Maycomb – this is a very good time to step back and ask ourselves how to diversify the narratives of racism and injustice that we offer to teenagers in Canadian schools, and how to ensure that more of the black history taught in our schools reflects the trials and triumphs of our own land.

Lawrence Hill, who lives in Hamilton, Ont., and Woody Point, Nfld., is the author of 10 books. His latest novel, The Illegal, has been shortlisted for Canada Reads 2016.

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