Retelling a classic in 2018: The debate over To Kill a Mockingbird

When To Kill a Mockingbird debuts on Broadway for the first time this December, it won’t be the version you may remember.

How creators and educators are grappling with problematic texts for today's audience

Members of the company in To Kill a Mockingbird perform at the Stratford Festival in southern Ontario. (David Hou/Stratford Festival)

When To Kill a Mockingbird debuts on Broadway for the first time this December, it won't be the version you may remember.

"We weren't going to pretend that 58 years hadn't gone by since the publication of the novel," Hollywood writer Aaron Sorkin said in an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes.

Sorkin obtained the rights to Mockingbird from author Harper Lee before she died, but his vision for the Broadway adaptation led to a now-settled legal battle with her estate over changes he deemed necessary. His defence was simple: For a story about racial injustice, "the only two African-American characters have nothing to say on the matter."

He went on to call it "a wasted opportunity."

Harper Lee's novels are seen on display at the To Kill a Mockingbird exhibit at the Stratford Perth Museum in southern Ontario this past November. (Nigel Hunt/CBC News)

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in America's Deep South, and Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer who steps in to defend him.

The novel won a Pulitzer Prize, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film and has sold more than 40 million copies. It continues to live in the hearts and minds of millions of readers. This fall, it was voted America's best-loved novel.

But the book is also among the titles cited in a growing debate over how best to present literary classics that have problematic or contentious elements. Some of the criticism about Mockingbird is that the black characters in the novel have little agency or voice, and the story is written from the perspective of a white author. There's also the repeated use of the N-word.

Jonathan Goad stars as Atticus Finch in the Stratford Festival's production of To Kill A Mockingbird this fall. (Stratford Festival/David Hou)

That discussion is something Ontario's Stratford Festival has had to grapple with.

"Sometimes, To Kill a Mockingbird lives nostalgically in people's minds and so they forget that it's quite a horrific story with a lot of really upsetting language, characters, incidents," says Lois Adamson, the festival's education director.

This fall, Stratford's own production of To Kill a Mockingbird is accompanied by digital study guides for teachers and students to review before seeing the play. And when the students arrive in Stratford, before the performance, they can participate in an hour-long workshop led by members of the cast.

These teaching resources and workshops allow students to ask critical questions about perspective, representation, authenticity and what voices are missing from the text, before they see the play, Adamson said.

Students visiting the Stratford Festival take in a workshop prior to watching To Kill a Mockingbird. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

"There are not really black voices in the book," said actor Déjah Dixon-Green, who appears in the Stratford Mockingbird production as Jesse, a young black girl who cares for an elderly woman not shy about hurling racist views.

"The story is written by a white person. All the black people that speak — it's through a white person's perspective of who they are, rather than their own voice."

Dixon-Green's character Jesse appears in Mockingbird, but wasn't written in the original play adaptation. Nigel Shawn Williams, who directed Stratford's production, added the character, with permission from Harper Lee's estate, to help elevate the presence of black characters.

Though the character has no speaking part, "I think it's important [she's included], so that those few black children in the audience or visible minority children in the audience have that connection onstage," Dixon-Green said.

Déjah Dixon-Green is part of the ensemble of To Kill a Mockingbird at The Stratford Festival. Nigel Hunt/CBC (Nigel Hunt/CBC News)

Along with fellow castmates, Dixon-Green helps run the pre-show student workshops that cover topics such as Jim Crow laws, oppression and social justice.

She says she's been "pleasantly surprised" by the engagement she's seen from many students, who ask important questions and offer "a strong opinion on what they feel about the situation and how it connects in today's world."

Still, she says, not every school group has the same level and depth of understanding when it comes to the civil rights movement and the themes in the text.

Looking beyond Mockingbird

As a teen growing up in Nova Scotia, George Elliott Clarke read To Kill a Mockingbird and enjoyed it. But the writer and poet is among those looking at the novel with more of a critical eye today.

"If we want to use that novel to teach anti-racism, to teach empowerment of black youth in particular, even to teach the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. and Canada, it has to fail," says the professor and former parliamentary poet laureate.

The continued teaching of Mockingbird in Canada achieves only one thing, he says: "That it's the Americans who are racist. It's the Americans who have a history of slavery and a history of segregation."

George Elliott Clarke shares why Canadians should look beyond To Kill a Mockingbird.

The professor, writer and former Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate makes a case for Canadians to put aside the Harper Lee classic in favour of other anti-racism works. 0:56

Instead, Clarke believes Canadian students should be learning about our own history of race relations, a topic many Indigenous and black Canadian writers have explored.

"We need to go to texts that talk about Canadian experiences and also texts that do not marginalize and alienate black youth in the classroom."

Schools debate a classic

Indeed, the debate surrounding Mockingbird and its place in schools has been going on for decades in North America. Some schools have removed it from class reading lists and it remains among the American Library Association's most challenged classics.

In 1996, the Nova Scotia Department of Education started phasing out To Kill a Mockingbird in its public schools after a curriculum review. One of its suggested replacement novels was A Lesson Before Dying by African-American author Ernest J. Gaines. Touching on the same themes as Mockingbird, the text depicts people of African descent as "fully human … and as having agency," the department stated.

This fall, the Mockingbird debate reignited in Ontario after the Peel District School Board sent out a memo to its staff about teaching the novel in its secondary schools, saying the book "may not be taught, unless instruction occurs through a critical, anti-oppression lens."

The decision came as a result of a review by Peel District board officials and hearing from black students and parents who cited Mockingbird — and the frequent use of the N-word in the text — as an example of the "demeaning representation" of blacks in the school curriculum.

The Peel District School Board west of Toronto shares a list of culturally relevant texts with its schools, which it says better serve its diverse student population. The list includes David Chariandy’s Brother, Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give and Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves.

What young people think

But some educators and students see the value in keeping To Kill a Mockingbird around.

"It shows what it was like 90 years ago when the novel was set. And thankfully we have evolved as a society since then," says Michael Pizzuti, an English teacher at London Central Secondary School who has taught the novel for 20 years.

Over eight weeks, he and his students discuss the controversies around the text — including the use of the N-word — and analyze its themes such as family relationships, the treatment of African-Americans and finding one's voice.

This year, Pizzuti brought his students to see Stratford's production and participated in the workshops. The high schoolers felt there was lots to take away from Mockingbird.

Teens studying To Kill a Mockingbird share their thoughts about the novel and encountering racism today.

Students (from left) Sophia Yuan, Sara Alnachef, Arithro Kazi, Faduma Hassan, Fadilazaki Irreza, Samantha Blight and Heath McAllister discuss Harper Lee's classic and facing racism today. 2:28

"It really amplified that black people didn't have the voice," says 14-year-old Sara Alnachef.

She still sees relevance in the novel's lessons. In particular, the idea that if you don't stand up to bigotry then you're as guilty as the people of Maycomb in Mockingbird.

For these teens, racism isn't something of the past. It's something they encounter today.

"We've come a long way," says 14-year-old Samantha Blight. "But there's always more we can be doing to improve society."