Can The Ban

The Duluth, Minnesota school system has decided to remove two of the finest American novels ever written from its curriculum because it is concerned that today’s students will be upset by them.

huck-finnThe two books are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many scholars consider to be the best American novel yet written, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which is clearly one of the finest novels written during the 20th century.  They will both be removed from the syllabus for the school system’s ninth grade and eleventh grade English classes, although the school system will allow copies of the books to remain in the school library.  The school district said it was removing the books from the curriculum because of concerns they might make certain students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Of course, both books directly tackle the issues of race in America, with Huckleberry Finn taking an unflinching look at slavery in pre-Civil War America and To Kill A Mockingbird focusing on bigotry and prejudice against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  Both books use the “n-word,” both books feature horrible racist characters, and both books involve upsetting scenes, appalling brutality, and themes that reflect poorly on the American soul.  That’s what makes the two books such uniquely powerful exercises in American literature.  And there’s no doubt that reading the books and considering the issues of slavery and racism they raise, and then talking about them in a classroom, will make students of all races and backgrounds feel uncomfortable — but there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort along the path to greater understanding.  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who reads either of those books could come away thinking that racism is good or that the vile, ignorant racist characters are to be emulated in any way.  I think both books in fact teach a good lesson and also have the value of demonstrating, through compelling stories, how the history of slavery and racism have stained our American character.

And, of course, removing the two acknowledged classics from the school’s curriculum sends an important, but bad, message about freedom of speech and that there are some things that are just too upsetting for students to be exposed to.

The Duluth school district’s curriculum director said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.  Good luck with that!  How can you teach the lesson that racism is bad without exposing students to the brutality, unfairness, and ignorance of racists and their true nature?

Harper Lee, R.I.P.

Writer Harper Lee died today in Monroeville, Alabama.  She was 89.

gty_harper_lee_tk_131016_16x9_992I’d be willing to bet good money that most obituaries about Ms. Lee will begin with the words:  “Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, . . ..”  She was, and always will be, associated with that one book.  Why not?  It is indisputably one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, and also a book that captured a moment in history, and a time and place, so vividly, and sketched characters so indelibly memorable, that it is one of those books that you would gladly read over and over again.  No one who has read that book will ever forget the adventurous Scout, the thoughtful Jem, the quiet dignity of falsely accused Tom Robinson, the mysterious Boo Radley, and the noble Atticus Finch.

And, of course, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books that did far more than what most books ever even aspire to do:  it helped to change the world.  By quietly telling a story of one instance of rank and sickening racial injustice in a small town in Alabama, To Kill A Mockingbird illuminated the dark underbelly of the American Dream and the blindered perspective of 1950s America.  The book, published in 1960, was one of the cultural elements that forced America to deal with the Jim Crow South and the heinous mistreatment of African-Americans in the states of the old Confederacy, and in the rest of the country as well.  What other novels have accomplished so much?  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps — but the list is not a long one.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.  You have made your mark, left a legacy that will endure, and served your conscience and your country well.

Bridge Of Spies At The Arena Grand

Today, I wasn’t going to be gulled into watching the Browns.  It was a beautiful fall day, so Kish and I decided to walk down to the Arena District to catch Bridge of Spies at the Arena Grand.

It’s not easy to find a movie that we both like.  Kish favors romances and the kind of character dramas that fall into the “chick flick” category, and I prefer action-adventure and sci-fi films.  Bridge of Spies is one of those rare movies that we both can get excited about.  An historical drama with the always excellent Tom Hanks as its star, about Cold War incidents that happened during our lifetime, Bridge of Spies seemed to be the perfect choice for a Sunday afternoon movie.  And it was.

If you haven’t seen Bridge of Spies, you’re missing something.  Hanks is excellent, as always, but Mark Rylance’s performance as Rudolf Abel, the accused Soviet spy, is a stunning revelation.  Rylance’s bushy-eyebrowed, deadpan treatment of the stoic Russian secret agent (and talented painter), and his clear chemistry with Hanks, takes the film from the realm of an interesting period piece into a real tour de force.

The movie is filled with fine performances and little touches that will resonate with those of us who grew up in the early ’60s and remember “duck and cover” lectures and air raid drills during grade school.  And — for me at least — it was refreshing to see a movie treat lawyers with sensitivity and respect and depict them in a way that reflects honorably on our profession.  In his own quiet and determined and ethical way, Hanks’ depiction of insurance attorney James B. Donovan, who was charged with representing a man most Americans wanted to hang, is one of the most positive portrayals of a lawyer since Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird made many young Americans decide to go to law school to try to improve the world.

This is the first time I’ve been to the Arena Grand complex, by the way, and it’s a great place to watch a movie.  We sat in comfortable seats, split some chicken quesadilla, and had a great time reliving those tense Cold War days.

50 Years Old This Week

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It was 50 Years ago this week that the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published by Harper Lee in July 1960. Two years later the novel was made into a movie that ranks as one of my top five favorites of all time.

The plot is a simple one which revolves around a widowed attorney Atticus Finch and his family, son Jem and daughter Scout in Alabama during the 1930’s. The local judge asks Finch to represent a black man, Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman.

While the film in itself is wonderful, the words of wisdom that Atticus is able to communicate to his children are timeless.

On life in general Finch says, “if you can learn a simple trick Scout you will get along alot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view, until you climb inside their skin and walk around in it.”

On racism he tells his children, “as you grow older you will see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don”t you forget it, whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

Regarding name calling by people who disagree with him he tells Scout, “it is never an insult to be called what someone thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is and it doesn’t hurt you.”

On the court case itself he says, “this case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

And Finch’s explanation of courage to his kids , “courage is when you know your licked before you start, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

Of course there are others and these are just a few, but they just don’t make movies like they used to !

To Kill A Mockingbird At 50

Harper Lee published her classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, 50 years ago this summer.  It is a timeless story that has had a huge impact on readers ever since.  Interestingly, although the novel tells a story that focuses on the unique culture of racism in the American South of the mid-20th century, it is enormously popular outside of America.  The BBC has a story about the book that notes that it is consistently ranked as one of the most beloved books in England, and the comments to the BBC piece bear that out.

Like many other people, I loved the book and loved the movie.  I think it would be hard not to like Jem and Scout, to be curious about the mysterious Boo Radley, to be awed by Atticus Finch and his battle against an ugly entrenched culture, and to be deeply saddened and angered by the racism and unfairness of the Jim Crow South.  I have no doubt that the powerful message of To Kill A Mockingbird contributed to the changing cultural and social conditions that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of government-supported segregation and discrimination in America.

I also am sure that the character of Atticus Finch caused many people to want to become a lawyer.  In a society where lawyers increasingly are presented as money-grubbing charlatans, the decency, dignity, and ethical compass of Atticus Finch stand out.  Those of us who are lawyers should be grateful to Harper Lee for creating a character who represents the good that lawyers can do and demonstrates the respect they can command.