What Art, Harper Lee and The N-Word Teach Us About Difficult Conversations

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham as Jean Louise 'Scout' Finch and Phillip Alford as Jeremy 'Jem' Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
Photograph by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Last week, the Biloxi School District in Mississippi received complaints about the language in To Kill A Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that deals with racial inequality in a small Southern town.

In response, the novel, which was included in 8th-grade language arts classes, was pulled from the curriculum, according to the Sun Herald. “There were complaints about it. There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books,” Kenny Holloway, vice president of the Biloxi School Board told the paper.

Not so fast, says one local parent. “The decision was made ‘mid-lesson plan,’” they wrote to the Sun Herald. “The students will not be allowed to finish the reading of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …. due to the use of the ‘N’ word.”

The announcement raises familiar issues of censorship, says Barbara Shoup, the author of the once-banned coming of age novel, Wish You Were Here. She told USA Today she was appalled by the move. “If we are going to solve the racial problems we have in our country now, we must confront the truth of how we got to where we are. Good fiction, like Mockingbird, ‘brings history alive,’” she said. “If it is uncomfortable to read and discuss, so be it. Most things that matter deeply are,” she said via email.

The language in the novel is worth a quick review. In this passage, Scout, the young daughter of Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending a black man unjustly accused of rape, has a question for her father:

“Atticus,” I said one evening, “what exactly is a nigger-lover?”

Atticus’s face was grave. “Has somebody been calling you that?

“No sir, Mrs. Dubose calls you that. She warms up every afternoon calling you that. Francis called me that last Christmas, that’s where I first heard it.”

“Is that the reason you jumped on him?” asked Atticus.

“Yes sir…”

“Then why are you asking me what it means?”

I tried to explain to Atticus that it wasn’t so much what Francis said that had infuriated me as the way he had said it. “It was like he’d said snot-nose or somethin’.”

“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody…”

Discomfort is an interesting benchmark. My hunch is that the sudden problem with the book is not about an unwillingness to participate in the awkward exercise of gazing into a cultural looking glass only to see a disturbing past. Sure, Mockingbird is filled with characters who might remind some people of their beloved Uncles and Aunties, now passed and unable to defend themselves against charges of unfettered Jim Crow complicity. What’s more likely is that people became uncomfortable with the dotted lines students would be able to draw to today. Don’t read a book. Don’t take a knee. Don’t express your opinion. Don’t learn the word ‘gerrymandering’.

If Mockingbird is banned, is 13th far behind? How much influence is temporary discomfort allowed to have in a society which has serious problems to solve?

In the nearly two years I’ve been writing about race for Fortune, I’ve asked hundreds of people about bias mitigation, recruiting best practices, hiring quotas, education reform, barriers to advancement and their lived experiences at work. Without fail, every person has ended on some version of the same notion: If we are going to develop the innovative and diverse workforce of the future, leaders at every level must get comfortable with discomfort. It’s not just about surviving the awkward moment. The times when we connect with someone different from ourselves can be the foundation of great personal transformation. And yes, better business outcomes.

If we’re going to develop a nation of engaged and thoughtful citizens, we’re going to have to encourage the same discipline.

This means having meaningful and uncomfortable conversations with each other, designed with intention and care. Where the media, social and traditional, may be falling short, the arts have a vital role to play in giving us the tools and courage to do so.

With all due respect to Biloxi’s Mr. Holloway, these lessons cannot be taught any other way.


Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board