How many times has your English department grappled with the question of teaching the same old texts? Some educators think every book should be from the canon of Western literature. Others advocate for multicultural novels that reflect our contemporary world. But when it comes down to it, no one can part with teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. It always stays.
While the novel is written by a white woman, told from the perspective of a young white girl, and holds up a white male as its hero, I maintain that this book offers myriad opportunities for anti-bias teaching. To this end, I created a lesson that allows teachers to use To Kill a Mockingbird to teach from the perspective of a female African-American character: Lula.
The New York Times education blog inspired this lesson. In the newspaper’s “Text to Text” series, guest writer Laura Tavares recommends reading Chapter 15 of Mockingbird while also reading a report on lynching by the Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. Chapter 15 follows Scout, Jem and Dill to the courthouse where Atticus is defending Tom Robinson. Classroom discussion of the chapter tends to focus on young Scout’s ability to break up a mob, mob behavior or Atticus’ courage. Tavares’ article suggests using the chapter to turn students’ attention to Tom and the horror he is likely to face. Doing so opens classroom space to talk about the brutality of lynching. Essentially, Tavares turns the lens by asking, “Without an awareness of this painful history, can students grasp what is at stake for Tom, Atticus, Scout and other characters in the novel—and can they reflect on its resonance today?”
The lesson that this post inspired me to develop focuses on Chapter 12, which offers another rich opportunity to turn the lens. African-American characters dominate the narrative in Chapter 12, allowing readers one of the only opportunities in Mockingbird to see the African-American characters as three-dimensional people with full lives of their own, positive roles in their communities and in positions of power.
In this chapter, Calpurnia brings Scout and Jem with her to the First Purchase Church. Lula, a young African-American parishioner, makes Scout and Jem feel unwelcome and gives Calpurnia a hard time about bringing them there. She says, “…they got their church, we got our’n.” Lula is described as “contentious” and “a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas and haughty ways.” With all the sympathy building for Calpurnia, the nurturer of the white protagonists, Scout and Jem, it is difficult to empathize with Lula.
But let’s talk about Lula.
Lula represents the African Americans in Maycomb who are starting to voice their outrage about the unjust treatment their community members endure. Her voice needs to be heard and validated. It is not necessary to declare Lula right or wrong; however, it is valuable to take some time to acknowledge Lula and consider what her anger tells us about the frustration felt by members of the African-American community in Maycomb. She may not convey her message in a way that is palatable to readers, but Lula shows courage in her willingness to stand up to the powerful members of her parish and state something that many members of the congregation probably felt.
Focusing on Lula’s perspective gives teachers the chance to ask questions that can support anti-bias teaching. Could Scout and Jem bring Calpurnia to their church? What are Lula’s “fancy ideas and haughty ways”? Could this just be Lula expressing a need for self-empowerment? Does she have a right to be angry? What is happening in Maycomb that would explain Lula’s response to Scout and Jem? Would any other white citizen be welcome at First Purchase? Is it possible that while Calpurnia and Reverend Sykes support Atticus, they may still resent the rest of Maycomb’s white citizens? How have we as a society come to accept quiet religious hypocrisy but condemn voiced anger over heinous racist acts?
Lula deserves some class time. She is not alone. In Chapter 24, Mrs. Grace Merriweather, “the most devout woman in Maycomb,” tells her employee, Sophy, who is clearly upset about the verdict, that “‘Jesus Christ never went around grumbling and complaining.’” Merriweather’s exchange with Sophy is another opportunity to explore rising voices in the African-American community.
Our students will hear these voices only if we give the Lulas and the Sophys space in our lessons—especially when studying one of literature’s most-read books about racial injustice in the United States.
Ritchhart, R., Church, M. & Morrison, K. Making Thinking Visible. How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Franciso: Josey-Bass, 2011.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 1999.
Esshaki is an English and English as a Second Language high school teacher in the metropolitan Detroit area.