One can barely look at the papers, and face the upheaval around the world: that targets racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Comments here that we do not share a long history of systemic racism are of course untrue, for discrimination has been ingrained in our and practically all societies worldwide. Whether sexism, gender, language, ability and disability to the most obvious- colour.
Arriving in 1966 from India, world renown writer, Bharati Mukherjee commented, “My many years in Montreal… had a profound… permanent effect on me.” In 1977, she left Montreal for Toronto, because she was called a “Paki,” presumed to be a shoplifter and harassed by house detectives in a hotel “in front of an elevator-load of leering, elbow-nudging women.” She explained that she was shocked, outraged and “shaken to the core” when three high-school boys in a subway taunted, “Why don’t you go back to Africa?”
Yet today, one believed that barriers were receding , but as I have also written, even in this pandemic, we are not all in this together, re: Covid 19 in spite of the flowery kumbaya slogans. For statistics, no surprise, declare that it sure makes a whooping difference where you live, and what circumstances wherein you find yourself, and the colour of your skin. Years back and even now, I am not discounting the Jewish or experience of women, both groups to which I belong. In deed, our Chief Justice Bora Laskin was once prohibited from joining law firms because he was Jewish, and only permitted access to the privileged Rideau Club in Ottawa in the 60’s , the first Jew on the Supreme Court. So it has been substantiated in many situations, our country too has a long relationship preventing equality for multiple groups.
I was thinking in particular about my own discomfort in teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, now on Broadway, a favourite because of the perceptions of Scout and her liberal lawyer father Atticus Finch who teaches you can’t understand a person until you walk in their skin: “ You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” , he teaches Scout, gently.
Although I truly understand the concept of empathy, I always cringed teaching the novel because Tom Robinson is wrongfully accused and convicted, eventually shot as he attempts to flee. ( Shades of Amy Cooper in Central Park? ) My discomfort had to do with the story of a person who cannot escape the mark of prevalent racism and is pronounced guilty. Justice shown to be both blind and unfair.I used to ponder that stamp put upon my black students who read of the hopelessness of their travails, doomed, and our teaching this book that reinforced the fate of all black men and boys.
Even teaching sympathetically, cautiously, with awareness, I worried that the Sisyphean depiction of the black man who cannot climb up and out of America’s contempt for his race would be burned in the imagination of every black child who read the novel.
One year in my class, in a mainly white public school , there was one black adolescent in the sea of white faces, and I struggled how to present, while not singling him out, or making it a story about him: which it was, of course. What message was being sent to this young man, a sterling student, a fine young man? I continued to ruminate, how best to teach this, trying to focus on the goodness of Atticus, the honest curiosity of Scout, without labouring the overwhelming motif, that no matter what you do, you will land up in prison, likely die there, unjustly accused for being born black. Good or bad, your fate has been written. I grappled with the issue, attempting to find balance where there was none, a fictive world of realities, an important picture of America with lessons that needed learning, but I, a white onlooker, like Scout and Atticus, was merely a witness, watching, outside the horrors upon which we could comment, but not known viscerally in our bodies or our nightmares.
I agree that it is a very good novel, and written from the eyes of an innocent, a child, we could have some license, yet it pained me to have it on the high school curriculum. In my Post- colonial course at the same school, we chose books written by Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Bucci Emecheta, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, encouraging indigenous voices to speak for themselves, but also along side, an occasional insightful white too such as Margaret Laurence, but foremost in that class, the life experiences were told by colonized oppressed persons.
I thought, too, of some of the other staples in education. For example Lord of the Flies. Were we also teaching fat boys with asthma and spectacles would wind up murdered because of their characteristics? Of course not, but if you resembled Piggy, maybe you began to look over your shoulder too as you huffed up the stairs. In curricula , there’s a plethora of books that dispel that fate, which in deed is rare: child murder by one’s peers, but in To Kill A Mockingbird, Tom may be the only black protagonist encountered throughout a child’s years of schooling. Where were the triumphant images of success that declared you could surmount, you could lead your life and not worry about some lurking cop?
Even my course, the Post-colonial one, I believe, was reshaped by another teacher, introducing it with an essay by a British colonizer, lessening the actual voices of the oppressed. And do we as teachers, shy away from difficult talks and situations? Are our hands tied by political correctness, eschewing problematic, societal issues? I hope not, but the message in the book, for black men and boys gave me pause.
We want to teach to develop empathy in the white kids, even strange white kids like Piggy or the misfits who do not conform, are tattooed and pierced with purple hair, the Holden Caulfields of the world. How must they feel, fully cognizant that even today, there is no escape from a life without a future, spared perhaps a few kindly hushes of a few good people? It is more than disconcerting.
Yet I trust that because I have not been in the classroom for a long long time that the staples of learning have grown to include more and a wider range of voices and experiences.
Back in the 90’s, I wrote for an American magazine called Multicultural Review, before “diversity “ became the word to examine lack of opportunities, schema, stereotyping and what could be done to , if not overcome, at least address the inequalities.
But the wake of the murder of George Floyd brings back Rodney King and the long twisted road that has barely improved. Besides, even in the single attack of a 75 year old man, knocked down and backward by police in Buffalo , only days after police brutality that ended Floyd’s life; and the orders to bring out the troops firing tear gas and rubber bullets on friendly peaceful protesters upholding their rights, we must despair. Where is the humanity, the desire to be in this together, and rise above partisan behaviour? It makes a soul weep, both black and white. And likely even the angels are shrieking.
I acknowledge that black history is our history. All around the world from Berlin to DC, we’re repeating that truth. And if it could be taught, Tom Robinson would not be stopped and arrested. He would be sitting on Atticus’s porch, playing cards in the sweet air and freedom of being black in America and elsewhere. Contemplating a future without fear.