'To Kill a Mockingbird,' Other Books Banned From California Schools Over Racism Concerns

Schools in Burbank will no longer be able to teach a handful of classic novels, including Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, following concerns raised by parents over racism.

Middle and high school English teachers in the Burbank Unified School District received the news during a virtual meeting on September 9.

Until further notice, teachers in the area will not be able to include on their curriculum Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Theodore Taylor's The Cay and Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

Four parents, three of whom are Black, challenged the classic novels for alleged potential harm to the district's roughly 400 Black students.

All but Huckleberry Finn have been required reading for students in the district.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Five novels had been challenged in Burbank, including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS/Getty

Carmenita Helligar said her daughter, Destiny, was approached by a white student in math class using a racial taunt including the N-word, which he'd learned from reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry while both attended the David Starr Jordan Middle School.

"My family used to own your family and now I want a dollar from each of you for the week," another boy is said to have told Destiny.

Helligar, who is one of the parents who filed a complaint in the case, claimed the boy's excuse was that he had read it in class and the principal had been dismissive of the incident.

"My daughter was literally traumatized," Helligar said. "These books are problematic ... you feel helpless because you can't even protect your child from the hurt that she's going through."

Nadra Ostrom, another Black parent who filed a complaint, argued that the portrayal of Black people is mostly from a white perspective.

"There's no counter-narrative to this Black person dealing with racism and a white person saving them," she said.

Ostrom added that the current education given to students assumes "that racism is something in the past."

NEW: PEN America calls upon the Burbank Unified School district to lift the temporary ban on several books dealing with the subject of race in America and allow these books to be taught in Burbank classrooms. Sign our petition today: https://t.co/RQKsZynnu6.

— PEN America (@PENamerica) October 14, 2020

However, other teachers, organizations and students have argued that the books' inclusion in teaching material is essential for supporting a conversation about contemporary racism and framing class discussions about race.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) sent a letter to BUSD urging the district to allow teaching of the books while the challenges are under review.

"[W]e believe that the books... have a great pedagogical value and should be retained in the curriculum," read the letter from the NCAC, as cited by the LA Times.

PEN America (an acronym for Poets, Essayists, Novelists) also released a petition calling to reinstate the banned books.

"Each of the books in question deal with difficult subject matter from our country's complicated and painful history, including systemic racism," an excerpt from the petition reads. "Blocking engagement with these important books is also avoiding the important role that schools can and should play in providing context for why these books inspire and challenge us still today."

Sungjoo Yoon, 15, a sophomore at Burbank High School, also launched an online petition on Change.org to stop what he called a "ban on antiracist books."

"In a time where racism has become more transparent than ever, we need to continue to educate students as to the roots of it; to create anti-racist students," Yoon wrote. "These literatures, of which have been declared 'Books that Shaped America' by the Library of Congress, won Newbury Medals, and are some of the most influential pieces, cannot disappear."

The debate comes after months of protests held across the country calling for an end to systemic racism and police brutality against Black people.

A 15-member review committee will issue their report to the superintendent by November 13.

A decision will then be made which can be appealed to the board of education.

Newsweek has reached out to the Burbank Unified School District for comment.

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