A Florida high school production of a play based on Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer prize-winning novel about racial conflict, To Kill a Mockingbird, has been cancelled. At the center of the controversy that prompted the cancellation was the historically necessary use of the word “nigger”.
The reason “nigger” is a word that carries such painful weight, of course, is due to a history of racism, to which books like To Kill a Mockingbird testify. That history is evoked every time the word is used, even today. But history will not be erased even if we delete the word from every play, novel or historical document about racism.
A play like To Kill a Mockingbird will help a younger generation understand the brutalities of racism and the hatred that accumulates in words. Indeed, we cringe at the use of the “n-word” today – as well we should – precisely because we are aware of its history and of the degradation and tragedy racism has caused. “Protecting” children from history will only keep them ignorant.
We have come a long way since the events described in To Kill a Mockingbird thanks to an open and often heated debate on civil rights issues, a debate made possible by our national commitment to the free circulation of ideas. It’s a lesson that we forget at our peril.
The latest from Flagler, FL regarding the production of To Kill a Mockingbird: On Monday, a review committee of teachers and parents determined that the play is appropriate for a high school audience. On Tuesday night, the School Board voted unanimously to allow Mockingbird to be performed. So far, so good!
However, before we pop the corks and eagerly await opening night, there is one more hurdle that must be overcome. Though the Board approved the play, it is ultimately the principal’s decision whether it will be performed by students at his high school. This is the same principal who made the decision to cancel the play. Will Principal Jacob Oliva be prepared to admit his error and let the play go ahead? Though Oliva has said that he looks „forward to the opportunity when the community can join us to celebrate this literary work,” he claims that some members of the review committee did not think that a “proper foundation had been laid to ensure the success of this production.” We hope that this is not Oliva’s way of postponing the production for some distant future when the controversy has died down and the students have all forgotten their parts.