‘Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read’: Banned Books and Little Britain

Just over a month ago, I was thrilled to learn that Harper Lee had authorised the digitisation of To Kill a Mockingbird. I had just led an outreach programme at a women’s prison on ‘Race and America’ in which we used Mockingbird as a source text to anchor our discussion. The women that took part loved the programme and loved the book. During the session we also listened to Emmylou Harris’s beautiful and haunting song ‘My Name is Emmett Till’ as we considered the resonance of racial violence in America (and beyond). The women were deeply affected by the simple acoustic melodies and the penetrating lyrics of the song, and they were moved by the insights of a young girl named Scout Finch.

I didn’t study Mockingbird at school, but I did read the book after my mum introduced me to the film with Gregory Peck when I was a teenager. When I was in NOLA, I noticed the book sitting on the bookshelf in the apartment where I was staying, and felt impelled to read it again. It was partly because it was fresh in my mind after rereading the text that I decided to use it in my outreach day. When I left NOLA, and left Tom’s place, I left the book behind. On my return to the UK I tried to get hold of an etext so that I could plan my outreach programme, but there just weren’t any out there. So I went to a bookstore and bought a hard copy of the thing. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE physical books. I like to scrawl over them, mark their pages, and smell them (especially if they’re ageing). Part of the enjoyment of reading is, for me at least, its kinaesthetic aspect. However, if you saw my bookshelf (which really is fit to burst), then you’d understand why I wanted to get hold of an ePub!

When Lee announced on her birthday (a birthday that she shares with my brilliant father, coincidentally) that she had sanctioned its distribution as an etext I was elated. Given the number of young children that now have iPads, Kindles, and such like, I was surprised, when I had tried to get hold of an electronic version of my own, that such a great work of children’s literature hadn’t been made available in digital format before. When the news broke, I tweeted about it a lot. What can I say? I was excited. Maybe people didn’t think it was a particularly big deal, but I did. I was excited at the prospect of this magnetic work flashing up as recommended reading on the eReaders of young technophiles. Whereas many teenagers have long been required to read Mockingbird for their GCSE exams, children might now, I imagined, choose to read the book of their own volition, because it is there, at their fingertips. In any case, and whatever Lee’s motivation behind her decision to go digital, I felt confident that the reach of the text would be that much greater as a result. And reach seems to me especially important given the continuing relevance of the main themes of the text. Mockingbird was published in the wake of the murder of Emmett Till, and it was only two years ago that Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman for looking too black to be up to any good in a gated community in Florida. ‘Stand Your Ground’ and the gross miscarriage of justice that it led to in this particular case bore an all too uncanny resemblance to the injustices suffered by Mamie Till and by Lee’s fictional Tom Robinson.

Books like Mockingbird allow us ways in to seeing and acknowledging our dark histories, histories in which even (and especially) us small islanders are complicit. Our great institutions were built on the proceeds of, and formed a key role in perpetuating, slavery in the Americas. We can choose not to acknowledge this. It’s easy, in fact, and we do it all the time. Nobody sees the black soldier on the bas-relief at the foot of Nelson’s column. Nobody sees the slaves on Jamaican plantations as they peruse Hans Sloane’s collections at the British Museum. It’s not even palpably present in our great country houses. But all of these things lay at the heart of our history, and if it weren’t for ‘outsider’ perspectives like Lee’s, we might not be encouraged to talk about them.

As you can imagine, I was truly horrified when I heard the news last week that British exam boards had planned to remove this brilliant text (amongst other controversial and politically engaged American texts) from their English programmes. I went into a rage. I stomped around, I tweeted vociferously, and I sat down to brainstorm ideas for a campaign to reverse the parochial actions of the Department for Education. It wasn’t long before I realised that all of this was probably futile. What angered me the most was that this news had come at a time when the text’s reach had been expanded; when more people would have had the opportunity to talk about it. The digitisation of Mockingbird brought it into the public imagination once more. Removing the text from the GCSE syllabus seemed to me like killing the conversation. To add insult to injury, WJEC announced that it would be removing Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from its list of set texts only two days after Angelou’s death, at a time, again, when everyone was talking about her and the major influence of her works. The criticism levelled against the DfE for the exclusion of texts from other cultures from the school syllabus is of course a valid one, but I also think we need to talk about how insensitive and just plain stupid these decisions are, given the public presence of these authors and these texts at this current moment.

Ultimately, had it not been for the American greats that I studied at school – writers like Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams – I may not have chosen to enrol on the degree programme that I took as an undergraduate in English and American Literature. It’s almost certain that I wouldn’t be working towards a PhD right now, wouldn’t have had the opportunity to spend one incredible month of my life in New Orleans doing research, and I wouldn’t have had any contact with the amazing people who have enriched my academic life. I can only speculate, of course, what my life would have been like if I’d read different books at school, but it makes me sad to think that one day in the not too distant future I might be teaching university students who have never read any Steinbeck, or Miller, or Lee, or Angelou, and the work will be so much harder, and the students will feel they have been defrauded as they will, perhaps for the first time, have to open their eyes, expand their vision, and engage in conversations that they find difficult and unprepared for.

I’m not so cynical that I think children won’t find these books on their own. Some, of course, will (I am living, breathing testimony to that fact). There will, however, be those that won’t, and those that won’t will lose so much, and not just where America is concerned, but in terms of their own histories, and their own world visions. Little Britain might just become even smaller.

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