Andray Domise is a Toronto-based freelance writer
In an 1897 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, American sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois coined the phrase “double consciousness” to describe the sublimated conflict with which the black person in America must wrestle at all time. “[This] sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” Du Bois wrote, “of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
I think about Du Bois’ words quite often. In fact, I’m forced to when the white-dominated society in which I live in trots out its traditions and beliefs (allegedly rooted in lofty ideals like logic, reason and freedom of speech) to convince black people that we are insane.
Take, for example, when a teacher for the Peel District School Board forwarded a board memo to the National Post, claiming that Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird was in danger of being censored in schools. “The use of racist texts as entry points into discussions about racism is hardly for the benefit of black students who already experience racism,” the memo reads. “This should give us pause – who does the use of these texts centre? Who does it serve? Why do we continue to teach them?”
The memo goes on to explain that black parents “detest” their children having to read the novel, and that its white author wrote it from her own perspective within a “white supremacist framework,” and for this, a teacher (who spoke to the National Post anonymously) believed lines were being crossed on censorship.
“That’s a dangerous thing, to refer to a white writer as a white supremacist,” said the teacher. “We’re not promoting racism, we’re referring to the reality of it.”
To be clear, To Kill a Mockingbird is a well-written book. As a teaching narrative on the reality of race, however, it is helplessly facile and ill-suited. It is a story told through the voice of a white child, Scout Finch, centred on the toils of her white father, Atticus Finch, and whose conflict rests on the judicial fate of a black man, Tom Robinson.
To Kill a Mockingbird was not only written in an immature voice, but poured out of a mind immaturely attuned to racialized people as human beings who continue to exist when white people aren’t thinking about them. The story’s cast of white characters – Scout’s family, her neighbours, even the malevolent Ewells – are actualized and living people, each with their own motivations and desires. They, and the social realities of the 1930s South, are the novel’s subject.
Tom Robinson, on the other hand, is a cipher. A formless void into which the white imagination can project itself. We know hardly anything of his family’s grief, or their rage at the unjust society into which they were violently displaced at birth. We read nothing of the nights his mother must have wrapped her hands around her empty womb and cried out to God to save her child. What we do know is his pitiful fate at the hands of a justice system engineered to destroy him.
Tom Robinson, and the black community in the fictional town of Maycomb, are the novel’s object.
There are far better books available for the purpose of teaching race to teenagers through literature. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, for one, is finding a wide base among North American educators. It does so no only due to Mr. Hill’s narrative skill, but because its main character Aminata, a Nigerien midwife kidnapped as a child and forced into slavery in colonial America, is presented with her own thoughts, feelings, desires and hatreds. As are Starr Carter, of Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, and Michael and Francis, of David Chariandy’s Brother.
These are the stories and frameworks required to educate white and racialized youth alike. That a 58-year-old book, written from a white woman’s perspective, should supersede award-winning stories from authors who live their racial realities once they put down the pen, is an absurd notion. As is the idea that promoting better books and better storytelling amounts to censorship.
The current reality of racism, as far as I can tell, would be a single English teacher’s perspective weighed against the voices of black parents and educators who proposed to update the curriculum. The reality is white attachment to a literary relic exerting a more powerful force than the intellectual drive for more knowledge, more voices and more perspectives.
The reality is that we’ll have to let go of the false wisdom of Atticus Finch, and the haplessness of Tom Robinson, if we truly wish to educate young people who live in a world where it’s necessary to remind them that their lives matter.