Anti-racism expert urges Peel schools to teach problematic ‘classics’ with care
Books hailed as “all-time classics” aren’t labelled with an expiry date for their relevance. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have one, an education expert suggests.
York University education professor Carl James believes some works highly regarded for their literary qualities could shackle readers to archaic prejudices out of step with the nuances of 21st century progressive thinking.
York University professor Carl James
James, who authored a 2017 report highlighting systemic racism within Ontario schools, urged the Peel District School Board in a report this spring outlining ways to better support Black students to “reconsider whether texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird should continue to be taught at all.”
Late last year debate swirled in Peel over the idea of banning the book, altogether.
However, James told The Pointer that, rather than simply banning problematic books in schools, he’d like teachers to take a critical approach toward their contents.
He said it’s important to recognize the context of a book and consider whether it remains relevant today. Blindly teaching something that reflects the sensibilities of its time to today’s students could be detrimental. “At some point, the context might be vastly different from the time we live in. We must ask ourselves: Is it the right time to use it?” he said. “We can't just blindly use the text because it’s just beautifully written.”
He said teachers should think carefully about how they want to view the book: “Is it a text used to talk about a period of time, or is it a text used to talk about human relations?” He added that it’s important to regularly review books despite their “all-time classic” status.
Over the past two years, the Peel District School Board, with one of the most diverse student bodies in the world, has been employing its recently adopted We Rise Together initiative, to which James contributed prior to its launch in 2016. It aims to help address unique challenges in the education system faced by Black students.
It addresses literature that has attained “classic” status and books, specifically To Kill a Mockingbird, that are often taught in Peel schools.
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel — the story of a white Southern lawyer who, in a virulently racist town, defends a young black man falsely accused of violating a white woman — has long been considered one of those “all-time classics.” It has often been a part of the curriculum because it unveils a time in American history of tremendous oppression of African-Americans. And, almost as often, it has been banned from classrooms.
Sometimes the objections have related to its discussions of sexuality and rape and its offensive language, particularly its use of the N-Word. More recently, critics have pointed to the fact that the book is narrated from a white perspective and presents a “white saviour” stereotype in its central figure, lawyer Atticus Finch, while the Black characters aren’t fully fleshed out, complex human figures but rather victims incapable of speaking for themselves. The book, published in 1960, reflects its times but falls short of 2019 sensibilities — as playwright Aaron Sorkin recognized in his rewrite of the novel for a current Tony-winning Broadway play, which shifts perspective to the Black characters.
The 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird featured Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson
“There are challenges for teachers to teach literature that was written in a different time period for a different audience. Literature and stories that have been valued in the past were those written by authors from European decent, from a Eurocentric perspective, and for an audience that was not as diverse as today,” Poleen Grewal, the PDSB’s associate director for instructional and equity support services, said in an email to The Pointer.
“The challenges of reading texts such as TKAM today is that the audience has changed. Specifically, the percentage of racialized people continues to increase in regions such as Peel, and these students and their families are demanding to learn about their histories and identities from an authentic, contemporary perspective.”
PDSB chair Stan Cameron says that prior to receiving James’ new report this spring, the board had already begun to address some of the concerns surrounding the use of To Kill a Mockingbird in classrooms.
“(P)rior to the release of Dr. James’ report, the Peel board worked with the board’s Literacy Coordinator to give all secondary schools the opportunity to return their To Kill A Mockingbird texts in exchange for new books that better represent the lived experiences of Black students,” Cameron told The Pointer.
“However, we acknowledge that there is still much work to be done and believe that Dr. James’ report provides a number of positive opportunities to continue to evolve and improve the initiative and our support for Black students. This includes opportunities such as developing a formal Anti-Racism policy, partnering with community organizations to profile Black educators and further engaging Black families in a culturally responsible manner.”
He said the board will continue to monitor experiences inside the classroom and in the community to ensure the education system is in line with broader values. “We are committed to executing this crucial work in order to minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black students in Peel board schools.”
Brampton Councillor Charmaine Williams told The Pointer she believes students are more susceptible to being influenced by literature than other forms of art. “The portability of books allows the reader the convenience of experiencing stories in a manner that makes them more suitable than other forms of art,” she said. “Students can't take home a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting and experience it in a manner intended by the artist. But they can take home a novel and intellectually transport themselves to another time and place.”
James said that before making a decision about introducing or redacting content from a school’s syllabus, it’s important to determine objectives. It’s crucial to consider who the students are and what they’re expected to get from reading the book. “Will it engage the student in the way we want to engage? What will the students will learn from it? Such things have to be taken care of.”
Williams, the first Black woman to serve on Brampton council, said she is optimistic about critically analyzing texts like To Kill A Mockingbird. “The recommendations are a good starting point. I believe that the board could mandate that teachers introduce a unit on anti-Black racism as a precursor to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird,” she said. “This would provide context to students before they are confronted with the hurtful and harmful words and themes in the book.”
Brampton Councillor Charmaine Williams
Williams, who has five children and has lived in Brampton for almost four decades, has seen firsthand what negative perceptions, based solely on the colour of one’s skin, can do to people. She is described as a “multi-systemic therapist who has counselled families and children facing domestic violence, mental health issues, substance abuse and neglect while working with local groups such as Associated Youth Services of Peel and Peel Children’s Centre."
Echoing James's recommendations, Williams said that “anti-racism training needs to be a component of teacher education and certification. The next generation of teachers need to understand the inherent bias in curriculum material and the effect that this has on students and student achievement.”
The PDSB’s We Rise Together plan outlines changes introduced board-wide in response to the needs of Black male students in particular. The program continues to work at issues involving systemic racism and barriers facing Black students in Peel schools.
Among other things, the board is providing teachers with resources to aid them in teaching students new texts or “classics” through an “anti-oppressive” lens.
One of the broader challenges outlined in James’s March 2019 report to the Peel board was the fact that Black students often don’t see their particular needs, interests and concerns reflected in the classroom or their treatment by teachers. “Racial stereotyping and differential treatment by many of their non-Black teachers not only fostered a schooling environment that made learning tough and challenging — hence, their lowered educational achievement but also … problematic situations with their non-Black peers.”
The report suggested that school administrators weren’t doing enough to confront these issues and address anti-Black racism in the schools. Student complaints were often met with skepticism and denial, exacerbating the distrust.
“This in turn caused many students to question educators’ commitment to their welfare, and their sense of belonging at their respective schools,” the report said. Some students observed that the inaction of school administrators “was a direct reminder of the inequalities they face daily outside of school.” Ironically, such inequality, inside or outside school, is exactly what the students are supposed to recognize through the teaching of certain books in the classroom.
Students from the Black community, James says, feel they have to work twice as hard as their white peers to succeed.
“A lot of people just look at you [and say]: ‘Oh, stay away from this guy, he's Black. He's a danger. He's going to blah blah blah blah.’ Everyone just likes to look down on us because of the stereotypes, and I think that's unfair,” a student is quoted in the report. “I think everyone deserves an equal chance. To be honest, we're no different from anyone else. We're all human beings; we all have the same thing; but we all get looked down on. We're trying to prove something; we're trying to stick up; we're trying to show them we’re not what you know.”
Among the recommendations James laid out for the board was to encourage parents to engage in their school communities, and to provide schools with resources to sustain anti-racism initiatives over time. The report said schools should encourage non-Black students to get involved in celebrating Black History Month: “Black History should not be seen as something that is only relevant to Black students.”
James recommended that student clubs should provide important engagement and leadership opportunities. He urged the school boards to conduct additional research on the perspectives of teachers regarding issues of equity, inclusivity and anti-Black racism, to gain a deeper understanding of the barriers students face in the classroom.
Another main recommendation was to communicate the policies adopted by schools to counter racism, as well as homophobia and Islamophobia, to students, staff and parents.
James said such measures are especially consequential in Ontario, where 57 percent of all Black Canadians live. Black Canadians make up a larger proportion of Ontario’s population (4.3 percent) than of any other province.
The PDSB recently reported on progress in the second year of the We Rise Together program, saying that system-wide anti-Black racism training has been completed with 10,000 teachers and support staff; 25 additional schools have joined a strategic plan to deepen their understanding of the lived experience of Black students and to learn about culturally responsive teaching; and Black student advisory councils have been established in 36 middle and high schools.
One example of how individual schools are responding is the Black parent engagement night held last month at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, which the school hopes will lead to a Black parent advisory group at the school.
In addition to programs like these, the board said it would “partner with community agencies for the possible creation of a We Rise Together Educator award recognizing those invested in the work of anti-Black racism.”
“We know there is still work to do,” the update says, “and we will continue to do what needs to be done, because that is the work of inclusion — that is how we make sure all students, including Black students, can truly rise.”
Excerpts from the Peel District School Board’s compendium document that serves as its guide for teaching To Kill a Mockingbird
- If the key goal is to help students develop agency, resiliency and critical consciousness, then it is crucial to choose texts that centre students and let them know they matter, that their interests, their experiences, and their identities matter, and that these are important enough to be reflected in classroom conversations.
- We want to encourage students to examine how characters live between two or more cultures in an increasingly diverse world. We want to expose students to multi-dimensional characters from diverse communities and provide opportunities for students to see themselves as they are and how they can be. It is, therefore, important to highlight the critical nature of how texts are taught and the instructional approaches used in order to mitigate or evade possible damage that various representations, themes, and use of language and power may cause in eroding students’ identities.
- With the integration of diverse texts, students can bring their identities, cultures and experiences to the learning environment of the classroom. Furthermore, this integration engages and validates students as it affords opportunities to make learning relevant, meaningful and authentic for students.
- Although all texts need to be taught from a critical lens, where students examine perspectives that are represented and those that are missing, To Kill a Mockingbird is a text that requires deep knowledge of anti-oppression pedagogy so that educators can create learning spaces for students to interrogate the theme of racism as well as biases, assumptions and stereotypes around Black peoples within historical and contemporary contexts.
- It is important to expose students to literary voices on race and injustice that have emerged in the past fifty years as these are voices that were not considered at the time the novel was first published, but must be heard in the 21 st century.
- Often, English teachers think that canonized texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men etc.) offer an entry point to teaching students about racism because of the “political or sensitive” nature of the topic. One must note, however, that Black peoples rarely have the luxury of deciding when they will be the targets of hatred, bigotry and racism and must deal with it when it shows up with or without warning. The use of racist texts as entry points into discussions about racism is hardly for the benefit of Black students who already experience racism. This should give us pause – who does the use of these texts centre? Who does it serve? Why do we continue to teach them?
- To Kill a Mockingbird underscores the role of the central Black character as only a victim – a victim of white violence. This removes Black characters’ agency and erases the role of resistance in individual Black lives and in Black liberation movements. In TKAM, the Black character plays a peripheral role. In these stories, Black characters are under-developed: they never experience a full range of emotions and qualities. Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, like other Black characters in the predominantly white-male authored literary canon, is flat, helpless, one-dimensional, and stereotypical. He lacks agency, autonomy and humanity. In the novel, he exists only as a victim of terrible circumstances, unlike Atticus and his family who are three-dimensional, vivid, complex white characters.
- Tom Robinson’s victimhood is the crux of this white saviour plot. His victimhood supports Atticus’ role as the greater, more courageous, more valiant white saviour. TKAM essentializes Black people and renders them less than human.
- To Kill a Mockingbird uses the N-Word more than nineteen times. Though this is not the only way that the novel is harmful, it does add to the violence of the book. The N-Word is a derogatory word and has been used as a weapon against Black people for more than a hundred years. This painfully poisonous word is linked to the violence and harm that has been used to relegate members of the Black community to subhuman status. Nothing, including the efforts of members of the Black community to reclaim or re-appropriate the word, can eliminate this history of this word. When we talk about the use of the N-Word, we must also talk about the general use of words — of language, identity and power. We must ask ourselves if there is anything in the book that justifies us having young adults of any race, culture, or ethnicity being forced to sit through the pain that this word causes. How does the repeated use of the N-Word help to desensitize us to the harm of the word?
- For all of the reasons above and so much more, many Black parents detest the idea of their children having to read this novel. The idea that banning books is about censorship and that censorship limits free speech is often decried as a poor reason to keep the novel on schools’ reading lists as its racist themes make it violent and oppressive for Black students.
To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee
From the board's guide; Teachers who seek to teach texts like To Kill a Mockingbird should ask:
• To what extent am I versed in issues of race?
• Have I experienced or studied race/racism?
• Do I know how racial hierarchies are reproduced?
• Do I know the impact of racism on those racialized?
• What do I know about racism as a system, a system that distributes resources unequally and ensures power and privilege for white folks?
• Do I know how white dominated institutions help to cater to or serve the interests of white folks at the expense of racialized peoples?
• Do I understand the distinction between individual prejudice and systemic inequities or institutionalized racial power?
• Have I done the work or engaged in activities to reveal/interrogate my biases?
• Do I know how my social location impacts my view of the world, my expectations of what is possible for Black people and my relationships with Black people?
• Do I possess critical consciousness?
• In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus says that we never know a person until we walk in their shoes – how accurate is he? What does this mean for white teachers being able to understand where Black students are coming from when they ask for the banning of the novel?
• Do I have a check-in mechanism for students to express their feelings throughout the novel study?
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