To Kill a Mockingbird, like many literary works, includes both language and topics that require careful consideration from teachers and students. We believe the best way to prepare to encounter these topics is to create a class contract outlining guidelines for a respectful, reflective classroom discussion. Review “Fostering a Reflective Classroom” on page 221 for suggestions for creating classroom contracts.
Harper Lee includes the word “nigger” deliberately to illustrate the society she writes about. Therefore, when quoting the text of To Kill a Mockingbird and in the historical documents included in this guide, we have chosen to let the word remain as it originally appeared, without any substitution. The dehumanizing power of this term and the ease with which some Americans have used it to describe their fellow human beings is central to understanding the themes of identity and human behavior at the heart of the book.
It is very difficult to use and discuss the term “nigger” in the classroom, but its presence in the novel makes it necessary to acknowledge it and set guidelines for students about whether or not to pronounce it when reading aloud or quoting from the text. Otherwise, this word’s presence might distract students from an open discussion about characters and themes. We recommend the following articles to help you determine how to approach the term in your classroom:
- “Exploring the Controversy: The ‘N’ Word” from Huck Finn in Context: A Teaching Guide (PBS)
- “Straight Talk about the N-Word” from Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center)
- “In Defense of a Loaded Word” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (New York Times)
You may also wish to point out the use of the word “negro” in the novel. In earlier times, this was an acceptable term for referring to African Americans. While not offensive in the past, today the term “negro” is outdated and inappropriate unless one is reading aloud directly from a historical document or work of literature.
Accusations of Rape
Accusations of rape play a central role in both the story of To Kill a Mockingbird and the history of the Scottsboro Boys, which is included in this guide. While explicit depictions of rape do not appear, the accusations in these stories may simultaneously be difficult to understand for some students and all too real for others.
Discussions of rape are complicated in relation to To Kill a Mockingbird and the Scottsboro Boys because both of these stories involve false accusations that play into racial fear and hatred. Experts tell us that most accusations of rape are not false. There is material provided later in this guide to help explore the beliefs and stereotypes that led to the false accusations students will learn about.
It is possible that some students will have additional questions or comments on the topic of rape outside of the context of the book. It is important to preview how you might respond to such questions and comments in case they arise. If they do, make sure to return to the class contract you have established with students to guide any discussion that follows. You might also consider alerting your building administrator to the fact that the topic of rape—critical in the analysis of the novel—might be brought up in your class in case any concerns about the discussion arise in the broader school community