It can be daunting but also amusing to set the context for Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. If my students thought the 1992 L.A. Riots were “back in the day,” imagine how long ago the 1930’s feel to them. Not only that, but when I refer to the southern United States, several of them think I really mean “a place near L.A.”
To conquer this, we spent a period locating Alabama on the map, sipping sweet southern tea and checking out Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photos. I even play a compilation of tunes that were popular then, including A Tisket, A Tasket by Ella Fitzgerald. Overall, we have fun as we look back.
So, today I had to round out that picture with the reality of the landscape of Lee’s novel. The truth is, many students have no idea what year slavery officially ended. They cannot tell me what Jim Crow laws were. And some innocently ask me what it means to lynch someone. Why must I be the bearer of bad news?
In order to help them understand the reality of the times, I have them read a short list of some of the Jim Crow laws. It seemed irrational, but not inconceivable, to my students that white motorists would have right-of-way at an intersection even if a black motorist arrived first. Students were not shocked when they read the rule that, “If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the black person sat in the back seat, or the back of a truck.” To the contrary, one African-American student said, “We still be sitting in the back of the bus.” I can hear Ms. Parks from the beyond saying, “Yes, but you get to choose to sit there.” Unfortunately, they weren’t terribly surprised by any of the rules because they still experience the racist undercurrents on a regular basis.
But, it was the fourth rule on the list that warranted audible sighs of indignation. The rule: blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended whites.
It was the end of the class, and kids were hooked. Their assignment was to read over the rules again and answer some reflection questions, like “What surprises you most about the Jim Crow rules?” and “What connections can you make to today’s society?”
I’m anxiously awaiting tomorrow, wondering who will be the brave student—there’s one every year—who says, “That’s just like today, the way gay people aren’t allowed to get married and how some people get offended when they hold hands in public.”
Some kids will squirm in their seats at this idea because they won’t yet know how to transfer their acceptance of blacks as full citizens to homosexuals. Some of them have been taught at home and in church to never accept this idea. Others will be able to make the connection easily and integrate this idea into their current thinking.
Either way, reading a book set in the 1930’s will help students question their reality today. Paired with the overwhelming theme of empathy put forth by the nearly flawless father Atticus, perhaps students will see that it doesn’t matter who the other is—African-American, tomboy, neighborhood recluse, feminist, single father, homosexual, undocumented immigrant—there is ample room for tolerance.
Thomas is an English teacher at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland, Calif.
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