A Letter to Harper Lee

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Editor’s note: Christina Vega, a 10th grade student at Suffield High School, was selected as a finalist for the 30th annual “Letters about Literature” contest. Her letter was in response to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The Neag School of Education, UConn’s Department of English, and the Connecticut Writing Project (CWP), co-sponsors of the 30th annual Letters About Literature contest. Students in Grades 4 through 12 are invited to read a text, broadly defined, and write a letter to the author (living or dead) about how the text affected them personally. Of the 558 submissions from Connecticut students this year, there were 69 students who received Honorable Mention as well as 62 Semi-Finalists.

Dear Harper Lee,

To Kill A Mockingbird ruined my life.

It is a reminder of everything wrong with the world today, with all of the multi-faceted layers of racism I continue to see and experience.

I see you for what you are. You’re the white activist who tries, but does it all for show. Your book is woke enough to appeal to the masses, but contains enough implicit bias to keep other readers in.

You remain neutral, and that is why your book is considered part of the canon. At the end of the day, you get to leave your “fictional” world behind, you receive the praise, and you lose nothing. It is a classic, because racism within the United States has been, and still is a classic.

I came to understand implicit and as a black woman in America at just eight years old. Living in a predominantly white town has always been difficult. I was treated as lesser than, just because I wasn’t white. Tom Robinson’s story, of being counted out, although he did nothing wrong was just a cruel reminder that the world I live in will never really include me.

Later on in the book, you made the decision to make Calpurnia, who spends almost all of her time with the Finch family, change her voice to fit in with her fellow black people. Rather than speaking how she normally does, with Jem, Scout, and Atticus, within her community, she matches the AAVE (African American Vernacular English) around her. Calpurnia does this in an effort to not “offend” any of her fellow black people by seeming smarter than them. By doing this, you depict AAVE as unintelligent, and not proper. As someone who learned to code switch early on to fit in with my white classmates and to avoid ridicule, that hit a bit too close to home. My parents taught me to always speak properly both in and out of school, no matter how “ghetto” my peers began to speak. I was placed on a pedestal for being able to both speak and write so eloquently, and was treated much better by my teachers throughout the years because of it. I worked hard to craft the image of the perfect student my teachers would adore, and shower with praise. Similar to Calpurnia, I was trapped between two worlds: being the “perfect and peaceful” black woman, and appealing to my white counterparts, or returning to the people I knew, who saw me as “high and mighty”, simply just “better” than them.

The book is a disaster, from start to finish. It deals with important topics such as colorism, segregation, the white savior trope, and both implicit and explicit bias, without truly following through on them. Black characters’s arcs are pushed to the side to prop up their white counterparts’s stories. As a writer myself, I should be inspired by you, but truthfully, all I can feel is disappointment. I know that I would never be applauded as “brave” for publishing a book like this. I know I would never gain the recognition, or the rewards you have received.

Your book was horrifically offensive to say the least. Filled to the brim with the n-word(48 times to be exact), class read alouds had me looking around nervously, knowing that one of my non-black peers would slip up and say it. Your book enabled my non-black classmates to not only use slurs, but to relish saying them. Even within a “historical context” that you claimed to use, every time I read the slur throughout To Kill A Mockingbird felt like a stab in the back, the knife twisting more and more as I continued further into the book.

Last year, along with a group of other students of color, I campaigned for the removal of your book from our curriculum. After months of work to convince our board of education, we succeeded in making sure that your book will never be taught at Suffield High School ever again. Removing your book from my school’s curriculum was the first step in furthering equality within my school district.

As much as your book hurts me, I have recently come to the realization that this book is a work (as realistic as it may seem) of fiction. This fictional world of Maycomb that you’ve created has no effect on me. Though the book is a reflection of the real world, it’s not real. Now that I know that, I have the opportunity to stay completely focused on the real world, and eradicate the harm that people like you have put out into it.

Thank you for letting me understand your failures. Without them, I would have never been able to work towards my success.

Christina Vega

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