In it, a single word can pull double or even triple-duty, serving completely different functions, depending on its context. The recent decision by the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board to cancel a high school trip to Neptune Theatre’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird provides a unique opportunity to watch the English language at work; here “censorship” has simultaneously become a call to arms for some and a red herring for others.
Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning book dealing with class difference and racial prejudice in 1930s Alabama has been a lightning rod for controversy in Nova Scotia since 2002, when complaints from students over the usage of racial slurs throughout the book led the Digby, Shelbourne and Yarmouth County school boards (known as the Tri-County School Board) to pull it from the list of approved teaching materials. Two other novels were pulled at that time as well—John Ball’s murder thriller, In the Heat of the Night, and Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada. A cry of censorship rang out and the media came running, unleashing a national torrent of editorials decrying the “book banning.”
Under the weight of the backlash, The Nova Scotia Department of Education repealed the decision, with administrators and politicians alike defending themselves using the same loaded language. “We’re not in the book banning business” then-minister of education Jane Purves told the Edmonton Journal, and Purves was right. Taking a book off the Department of Education’s approved material list, or “de-listing” it, does not equate to “banning” it. The book was not removed from bookstores or from public libraries, and no consequences would befall a student if she were to seek it out on her own. In heated situations, drawing such distinctions can be seen as quibbling over semantics, but it is in these exact occasions where semantics are everything.
Notwithstanding the flip-flop in 2002, a check on the Department of Education’s approved materials list reveals To Kill a Mockingbird is absent, and the latest dustup over the canceled field trip has the contentious issue grabbing headlines and editorial inches once again. For “Africadian” university professor and Windsor native George Elliott Clarke, all the controversy over whether or not the novel has indeed been censored entirely misses the point.
“We censor lots of books all the time” he says over the phone from his office at the University of Toronto. “We don’t teach every book that’s ever been printed and for good reason, because some people decide that some of the material might offend some kids or some parents.”
Clarke, a Governor General’s award winner for poetry, advocates for free speech, but argues that while people should be introduced to a wide range of thinking from authors of diverse backgrounds, choices are always going to have to be made. More is the danger of holding up a single piece of work to be the public benchmark for the health of race relations education in Nova Scotia, particularly this piece of work.
“To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel, and it should be taught for what it is, a great novel,” he says, but “it’s not a great novel for teaching anti-racism. It fails to prioritize the blacks in the novel. It is about good white people battling bad white people, but that in no way can be understood as anti-racism. There are many other books that meet that test.” More specifically, it’s an inappropriate choice as a teaching tool about anti-racism within a Nova Scotian context. “In Nova Scotia you have a minority community that has to struggle against segregation and racism to this day, and they need to have their history, their culture discussed and realized so that everyone knows the history of the Africadians.”
Of the 360 titles approved by the Department of Education for English Language Arts, grades 10 to 12, 31 are listed as African Heritage Literature. The list includes The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Diviners and the Canadian novel Land to Light On. The status of To Kill a Mockingbird as a teaching tool in Nova Scotia, however, remains unclear. While it is not on the approved list, Mary Fedorchuk, program coordinator for grades primary to 12, says there is nothing stopping teachers from including it in their syllabus. Indeed, five percent of the department’s budget is allocated specifically for books not found on that list, providing the teacher has reviewed the books for “bias.” Attending productions of the novel is proving just as nebulous; school board chair Terrie Spinney, who cancelled the school trip to Halifax to see the play, was also reportedly very supportive of students and parents attending a free screening of the 1962 film at the Imperial Theatre in Windsor.
For George Elliott Clarke, hanging the hat of Canadian race-relations education on To Kill a Mockingbird amounts to little more than “intellectual laziness.” To do so is to expect far more of the novel than it was meant to accomplish.
“Generations have had to read this as if it’s going to do something against racism. It is not intended to build attitudes of self-esteem in kids of colour. It’s not about them, it’s about good white people doing the right thing.” He wants to see more books by black authors being taught, to provide an historical context for books like To Kill a Mockingbird, and a critical viewpoint brought to the classroom when teaching all literature.
Any action taken in response to claims of racism or censorship is fraught. But according to Clarke the first step towards finding resolution is dialogue. “The issue needs to be widened into a general conversation of what we teach in our province.”