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'To Kill a Mockingbird': Should It Be Required Reading?

Aired August 14, 2001 - 15:00   ET


TAVIS SMILEY, GUEST HOST: Is "To Kill a Mockingbird" too offensive, too painful, too much for kids today? Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is off the required reading list for students in Muskogee, Oklahoma.


TERRY SAUL, PRINCIPAL, MUSKOGEE HIGH SCHOOL: We have a real diverse population, like most schools do, so we're incredibly sensitive about making sure that nobody in that population is offended in any way.


SMILEY: Saul says the school acted in response to complaints from African-Americans in the community. Yes, it explores racism, bigotry and prejudice in society. It uses the "N" word.


DANNY TERRY, STUDENT: Well, sometimes I think she kind of over- uses it sometimes, but then I know she tried to make her point about how they were treated.



TOBI FILLMAN, TEACHER: We talk about what it means. We talk about how would you feel if, and the majority of my African-American students say, you know, in this context it doesn't bother us.


SMILEY: The school board explains children need shelter from such harsh realities, even in fiction. How much protection do your kids need?

SMILEY: Welcome to TALKBACK LIVE. I'm Tavis Smiley filling in this week all week long for the vacationing Bobbie Battista and before we get into it, I want to talk to the education reporter at K-OTV in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Glenda Silvey has been covering "To Kill a Mockingbird's" fall from grace in the local high school. Linda, thanks for joining us. How are you today?

GLENDA SILVEY, K-OTV: Good afternoon, Tavis. Nice to be with you.

SMILEY: Nice to have you on the program. Let me start by asking you, first of all, what happened here? This story has come as a shock to me and those of us who think that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one of this country's greatest pieces of literature. But let's start by finding out what happened here in this school, in this school in Oklahoma.

SILVEY: Well, we received an e-mail from the ninth grade English teacher there. Her name is Tobi Fillman and she was expressing her concern and disappointment upon learning just a couple of days before she was scheduled to start preparing for the opening of school that the English Chair was notified that they could not teach "To Kill a Mockingbird." It was being removed from the required reading list.

SMILEY: And what reason was she given for why it was being removed?

SILVEY: She was told that the use of the "N" word was considered too sensitive for a diverse student population and there was also concerned about the alleged rape that occurs in the novel.

SMILEY: When you say diverse student population, how diverse is this particular school in Muskogee?

SILVEY: About 40 percent African American.

SMILEY: About 40 percent African American? So, but it was the "N" word that they, that became a problem, that wanted them to trump -- that basically trumped the story, the good story, of what is in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

SILVEY: And the principal wanted to emphasize he wasn't banning the novel, that several members of the African American community had expressed concern that it was just too sensitive and he said we're reviewing our reading list and we feel there surely must be something better to read that could still convey racial conciliation. But at the time we did our story, they had not come up with an alternative novel.

SMILEY: Several, as you know, is such a subjective term. When you say several African American parents came forward to complain, what are we talking about here? Two, three, four, fifty, a hundred? What are we talking here?

SILVEY: Someone tossed around the number of about seven people. That some were members of the -- employees of the school district.

SMILEY: So, roughly seven African Americans came forward to complain, and based upon the complaint of seven black folk, this book is banned from the reading list?

SILVEY: No banned from the reading list, it is still a book of choice. Any student who wishes to read it may do so. It remains in the media center at the library. It's just no on the required reading list for ninth graders any longer.

SMILEY: I've read, and I'm glad to have you on the program, because maybe you can bring some light to this and disabuse me of, perhaps, a notion that I have, that is faulty or wrong. I'm unclear, though, as to who this "education panel" was. We keep reading that an education panel decided that the book needed to be removed. The principal explained the education panel's decision, but who is this panel? Who was the panel? Who was on the panel?

SILVEY: The principal, Terry Saul, told me that the decision was made by him and an administrator over him, just two people, as far as I know.

SMILEY: Who made this decision? OK.

Let me meet our guests right quick and I'm going to ask Linda to stay with us for a second. I think there are a couple of things I want to get back to her on. But first, let me say hello, ask you to say hello, to our guests, Johnetta Cole, the president emeritus of Spelman College, she is currently the presidential distinguished professor of anthropology of women's studies and African American studies, a busy sister, at Emory University. Please welcome Johnetta Cole.

Also with us today, Niger Innis is the national spokesperson for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, a good friend. Please welcome Niger to the program.


SMILEY: How are you, man? How are you?

INNIS: Good.

SMILEY: Good. Dr. Cole, let me start with you and just a basic question. What do you make of this, first of all?

JOHNETTA COLE, PRESIDENT EMERITA, SPELMAN COLLEGE: The first thing I want to say is that it is complicated for us to deal in the 21st century with issues of race, anti-Semitism, sexism, homosexuality, difference.

Let's begin there. And let's also, in my view, acknowledge that we seem to be dealing with good hearted folk who, in my view, made the wrong decision.

This notion of removing "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the required reading list was done out of a concern about the sensitivity. A concern that African American students might be offended. So, we need to acknowledge that.

But you know, good-heartedness over something, but poorly executed, can get us in serious trouble. I am very concerned, if we begin to remove from required reading lists any and all books that force us to confront painful moments in our history and our herstory.

SMILEY: How does one, though, explain or rationalize or justify the fact that these were African American parents? I'm bothered by the fact I learn now there are only seven of them, apparently. That's another issue we'll get to momentarily. But how does one justify that these were black parents who came forward who -- I mean, all I can think is that maybe they haven't seen the movie or read the book. But here's a story about prejudice and racism and bigotry and the story of overcoming that, and yet they want this book removed. How does one explain that?

COLE: Brother Tavis, I have to say that you and I and the rest of all folks in the rest of this country of ours and the world must understand that not every African American is going to be correct on any and all issues.

I think that's an important thing for us to understand. Because these are African American parents, they could be Korean American parents. They could be Irish American parents. I'm going to assume that they, like most parents, are concerned for their children. But they are misguided.

Let me tell you what I wish. I wish those seven African American parents would read "To Kill a Mockingbird" with their children. That they would engage with those teachers. That, imagine this, imagine if that whole town took on that book to say what do we learn here from history, because if we don't learn, careful, we could repeat it.

SMILEY: Niger, one of the things that, if I -- let me play devil's advocate here for a moment. I think one could make the argument, and perhaps rather credibly, that whether you like the fact that this community wanted this book, or at least some of the community, seven folk in the community, wanted this book removed or not. No matter where you come down on that issue, is it not proper that those who have authority, parents in local school districts, parents of students at local schools, do in fact have the right to say we don't want this book required of our students at this school?

INNIS: There is no question about it. You know, in the early 90's there was a struggle over the so-called rainbow curriculum in New York City schools which dealt with the homosexual lifestyle, and a lot of parents, black and Latino parents, felt that that rainbow curriculum was superimposed on them without even their consultation.

That's why my boss, Roy Innis, national chairman of CORE led the fight in a coalition of Hispanics and whites and blacks, to say no, that parents will be heard on the issue and we want a successful fight. So, that's an overreaction in one way, where parents don't matter at all, where parents have an objection and they aren't heard.

I think this school panel may have overreacted in the other extreme in that only several parents, a few, I believe you said seven parents, came to the school and complained about the "To Kill a Mockingbird" and while that should have served as a wake-up call, because parents do matter. Parents should be full partners with school administrators, with teachers in educating their children. Having said that, though, perhaps this should have been a wake-up call to the school administration to hold a town hall meeting or to hold a parent-teachers night to discuss this in a full fashion, in a comprehensive fashion. But instead of that, it seems that they may have overreacted and they may be hypersensitive.

SMILEY: Glenda, we've got to take our first break here in a moment and I know I'm going to lose you. First of all, thank you for coming on. But let me ask you before I let you go, given that this story out of Muskogee -- where is Muskogee, by the way?

SILVEY: About 40 miles from Tulsa.

SMILEY: All right, now that I know where Muskogee is and now that this school in Muskogee has made national news, indeed live here on CNN today, what's happening now? Now that this story has gotten out and folks seem to be expressing some frustration and angst about it, any story coming out of Muskogee now that they may reconsider the decision? Another book being put back on the list? What's happening now?

SILVEY: Well, interestingly, we just heard yesterday that the teacher involved in the story, Tobi Fillman, has transferred to another school district. We have been trying to reach her. We were told that it was not as a result of this story, that she -- or the removal of the book from the reading list, but that she had another offer. So, we are trying to follow that up.

It did generate some viewer interest on the part of our viewers here in Tulsa, but so far we haven't heard of any movement or inclination to change the decision.

I should mention, also, that the number seven, the principal did not give me that number. A teacher told me that it was seven people who had been trying to have the book removed for some years.

SMILEY: Glenda Silvey of K-OTV in Muskogee, Oklahoma, thank you very much for joining us.

SILVEY: My pleasure.

SMILEY: We're just getting started here. Do you agree with the Muskogee School Board's decision? Take the TALKBACK LIVE on-line viewer vote at, at AOL keyword CNN. Up next, should some stories be told no matter how offensive they are? What do you think? TALKBACK LIVE continues in a moment, stay with us.


SMILEY (voice-over): "To Kill a Mockingbird" will be the first book on the city of Chicago's reading initiative geared toward getting all Chicagoans reading the same book at the same time.

The local bar association will hold a mock trial based on the plot of the book and the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck will be screened all over the city. (on camera): Welcome back to TALKBACK LIVE. I'm Tavis Smiley filling in for the vacationing Bobbie Battista and let me get back to the question posed before the break, Dr. Cole, whether or not we should tell stories, no matter how offensive they are. And this actually raised another issue as well, and that is how one does in fact tell those stories. How does -- you're a professor, been doing it for years and college president. How does one go about the business of teaching sensitive history?

COLE: You know, I am most concerned about the paucity of young voices in literature, as a teacher. That's what hurts so much. To think that Scout, who is such a well-developed character in "To Kill a Mockingbird," who I would think would develop instant empathy with young folk, will not be heard.

Think of the diary of Anne Frank. That is so powerful in part because it is a story told through the voice of a young person who experiences the horrors of the Holocaust. And so, one teaches by many means, but certainly key to teaching is the ability to establish one's students and that piece of literature, a realness, a connection, an empathy.

But I think one also teaches by example. And so if we have a school board that says, you know, you can read this book, but I'll tell you what, we don't particularly like these Puerto Rican students we've got around here, or you can read about the Holocaust, but you know, Jews really are some pretty money-hungry people, then something is not happening about education. There must be a connection between what is being read and understood and what is being lived.

SMILEY: Niger, I want to get some audience questions or comments here in a moment, but I can't help but think as I listen to Johnetta Cole here that you have parents here, no matter how small the number might be, who are, as Dr. Cole said, ostensibly trying to do the right thing, trying to, shall we say, protect their students, their children, and they have a right to do that.

But it seems rather ironic to me that these African American students, and I think I'm right about this, Niger, and I think you'll agree with me on this. These black students can more here the "N" word in the hallway, indeed saying it themselves. They can more hear it in the music they listen to, in the movies they see, in the television they watch. They can more hear that word in those mediums than they ever could in "To Kill a Mockingbird," not to mention that Harper Lee does not use the word, in my estimation, at least, gratuitously, in the book "To Kill a Mockingbird." And yet these parents are so vocal and outrage about wanting this book out of the school, or at least off of the reading list. Juxtapose those two things for me if you can.

INNIS: I think you hit it right on the mark, Tavis. The fact of the matter is I believe these parents overreacted to a beautiful piece of literature and the "N" word that is used in the literature is within context. But I believe the overaction is because of the environment that exists around them. You know, as you said, they could sooner hear and -- proliferated in black media as well as white media, the degradation of young black people in hip hop culture, in rap, in a lot of gangsta rap music and other types of music videos, than they will in this particular book or other pieces of literature. And I believe that's what the overreaction is about.

And unfortunately, they have the right cause, but they missed the target.

SMILEY: There's a young lady visiting from Washington today who I think just read the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" in school.

Give me your name and give me your comment.

AMELIA STEWART, AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Amelia Stewart and I attend Carson High School. It is Maryland. And we just read "To Kill a Mockingbird" fourth quarter of this past year, in fact in May. And I don't think that this book is offensive in any way. We, in fact, had a white teacher that was teaching the class. It was a majority black class and nobody had a problem with it. My mother loves the book. None of the other parents that I have ever talked to about the book have had a problem with the book. It's wonderful. It's a wonderful book.

SMILEY: I have someone in the audience who disagrees with Amelia. While Chris makes his way there, let me read a couple of e- mail right quick, e-mail we received, excuse me.

"This is a great way to promote a book. All the kids in the U.S. will be reading it now." Marge in Prince George, British Columbia.

Sometimes that is the case, isn't it? When you ban something, folk bum rush the book to read it as quickly as they can because you told them not to read it. I love kids.

And from Roy in Tyler, Texas: "There is probably something in every book every written, including the Bible, that someone will object to. So I guess we just need to ban them all."

You just now raised the question, Johnetta Cole, as to where we are headed in this society. I mean, we have folk who find work that is offensive and the first thing we want to do is to ban those books as reading material. It's no secret now that the ABA, the American Book Association, I think, has a week dedicated every year to books that are banned because that list proliferates and grows every single year. Where are we headed as a society when we see this happening more and more and more and now to classic pieces like "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

COLE: Well, as usual, judgment cannot be ignored. I would never take the position that every single thing that has ever been written is appropriate for young people to read.

First of all, I am strongly in opposition to pornography easily available at all to young folk. But the line between what is inappropriate and what is uncomfortable; the line between what we really must protect our children from and what we must teach them with is a line, and frankly I don't think it's so thin.

I think that, and I love our brother from CORE's point, that parents have a right to be full participants in the education of their children. I think that if there had been a discussion with these parents, a rational discussion that allowed them to see that they have a point, but a misguided one, we might have avoided the withdrawal of that book. But I must tell you, once we get on this road, I don't know how we ever stop...

SMILEY: It's a slippery slope. It's a slippery slope.

COLE: Exactly.

SMILEY: Niger, I want to ask you something in a moment about who sets the standards. Johnetta makes a very good point that, you know, we've got to watch sliding down this slope, getting on the wrong road here. But who sets the standard?

First, though, Bob in Arizona, thanks for holding. You're on TALKBACK LIVE and I'm glad you called, Bob.

BOB, CALLER: Hi, how you doing?

SMILEY: I'm well. How are you?

BOB: First of all, I want to say that, first of all, nobody said -- kids are smarter than this, OK? Don't insult their intelligence. Kids need to be taught about how things were viewed as stated in this book at that particular time. When is everybody going to finally learn that education is the best way to battle these issues, not by turning a cold shoulder, by not teaching them this material?

So, just like Mrs. Cole said. It's a little like Jewish parents shielding their kids from the atrocities of the Holocaust. They don't want them to hear the offensive things that took place. It's a bad idea in general. They should keep this on required reading. Kids are so much smarter.

SMILEY: Thank you, Bob.

Niger, I got a break. We'll come back to that question I asked in a moment. But first, are kids today overprotected? What do we think will happen to them if they read the book, or any book for that matter? Bob is right. We'll talk more about it in a moment. Stay with TALKBACK LIVE.


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello from the CNN center in Atlanta and we want to take you immediately out to the Rocky Mountains where the president taking a break from his vacation to do some work with the folks to talk about young people and character development today in Estes Park in the Colorado Rockies. Let's listen to the president. GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you for your hospitality. I want to thank the directors of the Y for welcoming me to this little slice of heaven. You know, when I was growing up in Texas a lot of people say, "You know, I spent my summer in Estes Park" -- and now I know why. It's a beautiful spot. And thanks for having me.


I'm traveling with some folks that you might want to at least say hello to. I picked somebody to head the Department of the Interior who would understand the thinking of the West, who would understand that we can have good sound environmental policy; that conservation is important.

And so when I named Gale Norton from the state of Colorado to be the head of the Department of Interior a lot of folks came to realize this is an administration that's going to be wise, full of common sense when it comes to preserving the natural beauty of our country. And I'm so thankful Gale Norton is here.

Where are you, Gale? Thank you for coming.


I also needed to find somebody to run our National Park Service, somebody who was bright and wise as well, somebody who shared our commitment to making sure that, at the very minimum, the maintenance backlog in these parks ought to be taken care of; that the parks are for the people.


That when we just talk about a national park system that is an incredibly important part of our nation's heritage and tradition, that the parks be accessible for the people who pay the bills; that they be well-maintained. We've got $5 billion in the budget for the next five years to end this maintenance backlog. And the person who's going to work with us to do so, is the National Park Service director, Fran Mainella.

Thank you, Fran.


And I want to thank all the Park Service employees who are here. You got a tough job and an important job. And we probably don't thank you enough for the work you do, but I want to thank you.

It's great to travel up on the trail and see the wise public policy being deployed here. Public policy to make sure that we reduce the hazards of forest fires, smart management of our lands, wise, common sense approach to how we thin out our forests to prevent the hazards of forest fire. And the park employees were up there working along with the volunteers from the Y Camp. I also love meeting the folks making the trails so that the American people can access this beautiful part of the world. So on behalf of the taxpayers of our country and the administration, I want to thank all the Park Service employees for your good work.


Also traveling with me today is the governor of this great state, a man who has fulfilled every promise he made. And that's my friend, Bill Owens.

Thank you for coming, Bill.


And the lieutenant governor is somewhere.

Hey, Joe, thank you.

The Lieutenant Governor Rogers is here, as well.


Thank you for being here.

Two fine United States senators, Wayne Allard and Bill Nighthorse Campbell, are here.


The congressman from this district, Bob Schaffer, is here.

Bob, where are you? There he is.


And Tom Tancredo, the other congressman.

Thank you all for coming.

We are making some progress in Washington, starting with changing the tone of the nation's capital.

Like a lot of citizens around our country, I was deeply concerned about the bitterness that seemed to be, you know, in every other voice in the nation's capital. And one of the things I pledged to do was to at least try to change the tone; try to say, "If you don't happen to agree with somebody, you can disagree in an agreeable way"; that party is important, but it's not paramount, what's more important is the country.

And I believe we're making good progress. We've come together and have done some smart things on behalf of the American people. I think one of the smartest things we did was cut the taxes, to get people their money back.


I appreciate all the signs I saw coming in, where people said, "Thanks for the $600."


But, guess what? It wasn't mine to give out, it was theirs to begin with. And so, it's important, we've got a wise budget and we've got a good budget, good, sound fiscal policy. We're working hard on getting an education bill out that makes sense.

We're making -- we're sending a clear message overseas that ours is a proud nation that will promote the peace, but we're not going to sign on to every single agreement that somebody thought might have been good. We're going to stand tall for freedom in America. And what's good for America is going to be paramount to my way of thinking.

I think we're making good progress explaining to our allies that we'll be loyal friends, but we can't be all things to all people. I hope we're breaking new ground when it comes to Mr. Putin, welcoming him to the West, saying to him that the old days of mistrust, aiming missiles at each other have got to end. The Cold War is over, it's finally over, and now it's time to think -- have a new strategic thinking about how to keep the peace.

So we're making good progress, but there's a role bigger than just initiatives and legislation for a president and an administration. And it's really to herald -- to capture the spirit of the country. That's why I'm so thankful that Dave Thomas has invited me here, to let me come, and the staff, because the spirit of the country is reflected, in my judgment, right here in this beautiful setting.

The spirit of America is found in the character of our citizens, the value base that makes America, I think, such a different kind of place, a place that -- a country that values family and friendship, a place where people learn values and character.

One of the things that -- when I try to describe America to somebody who's never been here, I say, "We're a country stitched together by communities of character."

This is a community of character, as far as I'm concerned. Not only does it exist in a beautiful setting, and I can see why families have wanted to come back year after year after year, but there's also a grand vision embodied in these mountains, and the vision is that we can teach our children right from wrong and we can teach them good sound values, so that when they get older, they'll make the right choices in their life. We can teach our children values that'll make an enormous difference for our country as a whole.

The values of respect, respect the land, respect somebody with whom you may not agree, respect your neighbor regardless of where they were raised or where they were born, respect somebody else's religious views. Be willing to listen. It's an important value to make our country so different and so unique; a country that's been able to absorb people from all walks of life, under the great umbrella of freedom and opportunity.

There's also respect taught here, respect for family. I was -- up there, when I was helping clear the trail, somebody said they were from Fredericksburg, Texas, which reminded me of a story that -- a true story that happened to me. I was there as governor of Texas for the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific theater and my mother and dad were there, as was Laura my wife, and I got up to speak and welcome everybody as the governor.

Welcome to central Texas," and people cheered. And I said, "Mother" -- and before I could say another word everybody was screaming at the top of their lungs. And I said, "Mother, still everybody here loves you in Texas, and so do I, but you are still telling me what to do after 50 years."


And a guy in a big cowboy hat steps out in the middle of Main Street, Fredericksburg, and screams, "You better listen to her, too, boy."


Part of respect is respect your mom and dad. So to the campers here, my advice is listen to your mother.



In my case, I don't have any choice.


There's also that you teach the sense of responsibility; that each of us must be responsible for the decisions we make in life. And that's a really important character and core value for our country; that we must have a responsible society, that government can't do everything in a society, that we've got to be responsible for loving a neighbor like we'd like to be loved ourselves.

One of the things that I'm hoping to get through the Congress is the faith-based initiative -- faith- and community-based initiative which will capture and stand side by side the programs all around America that rely upon faith to help change people's lives.

I recognize there's a role for government-sponsored programs, but our society must recognize there is also a role for faith-based initiatives and faith-based programs, programs that exist to help people change their heart and therefore change their behavior.

We shouldn't fear faith in America. We ought to welcome the faith-based programs that help define our country as a unique land. And so responsible society is one that we all must aim for. Now this is a nation of character and values, and I'm so honored to be in a place that teaches values, that heralds character, that's not afraid to say there are right choices in life to make and wrong choices in life to make; a community of conscious and the community of character that aims to say to our young: "This American experience is a fantastic experience. Work hard, study hard, respect your family and respect your friends and our nation will be even greater than it is today."

So thank you for giving me a chance to come and herald a wonderful program in an unbelievably beautiful setting.

It's a great honor to be the president of this country, and the main reason why is, because our country is the greatest there is. And the reason why we are is, because the people of America are so fantastic and so loving and so decent.

May God bless you all.

CHEN: You might disagree with the president about any number of things, but you can't argue with his choice for settings today. That is truly one of the nation's great treasures, Rocky Mountain National Park.

The president, as you see there, lining up to shake hands and perhaps have a picture made with one of the key leaders there at the YMCA park at Estes Park, Colorado. Let me tell you what he's been doing. As you know the president taken this month off outside of the Beltway working out of ranch in Crawford, Texas.

He is taking today out, This is the first time he's gotten away from the ranch in Crawford, Texas for a full day and full night away from the ranch. And he's gone to the YMCA park at Estes Park, Colorado. It is a big family community. It brings in kids and families every summer and as you see, it's pretty cool there in the mountain. He chose that setting to talk about character development in young people and with the young people there.

He also used it to underline his support for faith-based initiatives, that is to say programs based in religious communities for social services. And the president speaking today out at Estes Park, Colorado, and he will remain in Colorado and then travel elsewhere into the Southwest later in the day. We want to go back to "TALKBACK LIVE" where they continue to take up the discussion of young people and education. Let's return to Tavis Smiley.

SMILEY: Thank you, Joie. We are back live continuing our -- thank you very much -- continuing our conversation today about -- I think we can say values and character. Let me pick up on the president's theme Johnetta, with you first and then to Niger.

What does it say about us as a country in terms of our values and our ethics and our character, when we have principals, when we have school boards who, because of offensive language, would rather allow that language to trump the story of character, the story of good values, the story of doing away with bigotry. What does it say about us as a country that these lists of books that are banned keep growing and growing and growing?

COLE: Certainly President Bush is right. Values are central to the core of any nation. Certainly he is correct. We teach values. But the question of the day is, what values do we teach when we remove "To Kill a Mockingbird?" We teach that there are parts of our history that should just forget. Maybe it will go away, Maybe it never happened.

Why don't we just never make reference to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Then we don't have to think about it.

Why don't we forget the Trail of Tears on which Native American people walked and then we don't have to deal with it? Why don't we not read "To Kill a Mockingbird"? Maybe racism will go away.

And so every act that we do, particularly within the context of an educational system, teaches something. I don't want to teach censorship. I don't want to teach forgetting painful moments in history. I don't want to teach our young folk to fail to confront what negativity is embedded in hatred.

SMILEY: Niger, with all due respect to President Bush, is it what he really was talking about, the easy part of the work that has to be done? The easy part is telling (UNINTELLIGIBLE) listen to your mom and dad. Great story, and you know, I cast no aspersion on the president's words, but that seems to me be the easy part of the challenge.

How do we, though, as a country get people to understand in America that we have to talk about these things that are oftentimes difficult to talk about, as Johnetta says? The homophobia, the racism, the bigotry?

Isn't that what books like "To Kill a Mockingbird" ostensibly have the opportunity to do? But we have parents who want these books banned repeatedly. And this is not just a black thing. You know, it's not a black thing or a white thing. There are all kinds of books, from John Steinbeck to Maya Angelou to -- to -- the list goes -- "Harry Potter." The list goes on and on and on of books that people want banned. What does that say about our character? How do we deal with the tough question and not the easy issue, it seems to me, that Mr. Bush just raised?

INNIS: Well, I think you have to have an inclusive community. You asked before we broke to the president's speech who -- who should count in this discussion, and I think you should have an inclusive community. We should see the scholastic community as almost a conspiracy on the part of administrators, teachers and parents to teach our children those values -- you call them easy values -- but they're important values of listening to your parents, of respecting your elders, and also teaching those rough periods in our history that we have overcome. And I think it's critical for us to realize that the kids that we're talking about are not in the 5th grade or the 4th grade or the 1st grade where this type of material in "To Kill a Mockingbird" might be questionable in terms of teaching them. We're talking about high- school students that are making the transition from being children to becoming adults and going off into college and going off into their lives as full-fledged adults.

So it's critically important that we teach our children the ability to critically analyze even painful periods in our history. And it's also important, I think, to teach -- and this may be more important in our history classes -- to teach that what happened in the 1950s and the 1960s and before then shows that we have triumphed to a great extent and we have overcome to a great extent. It doesn't mean that we don't have a long way to go, but that we have made progress, and to bring perspective and balance to discussion of these tragedies.

SMILEY: Let me bring Maira Liriano to this discussion. Maira Liriano joins us now. She is the director of reference for the Chicago Public Library Association.

And "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- we have Maira on the program. First of all, thanks for joining us, Maira.


SMILEY: We have you on the program because you guys are doing something rather interesting in the city of Chicago with regard to the book "To Kill a Mockingbird." It's almost the antithesis of what's happening in Muskogee. Tell me what you guys are doing with this book in Chicago.

LIRIANO: Sure. At the end of this month, August 25th, we're going to unveil this program where we're going to have all of Chicago reading the same book. And it's called One Book, One Chicago. This is the inaugural event, and we have chosen "To Kill a Mockingbird" for this.

SMILEY: Why did you choose this book?

LIRIANO: Well, of course, it was rather difficult at first when you think of all the books that could be chosen for something like this. But it's a book that came up over and over again when we surveyed librarians at work at the Chicago Public Library. It also is our mayor's favorite book, and it was a book that we felt was accessible to many people. Even if you read it before, it's the kind of book that you wouldn't mind reading again.

And I think for people that haven't read it, they've heard about it or they've seen the movie but haven't maybe -- haven't read the book. So we knew that it would appeal to a lot of people. And ultimately, we wanted to get as many citizens of Chicago reading this book and wanting to read this book. And we have been overwhelmed with the response so far. We haven't even officially launched it yet, and it's been very exciting to see how accepting -- how accepted it is in this -- in this city. SMILEY: You know, I'm almost stunned here, because Chicago -- it's a great city. I love the Windy City, been there many times. Look forward to coming back again. It has historically, though, been one of the more segregated cities in this country. And I've not been to Muskogee, Oklahoma, Maira, but I'm -- I'm at a loss here for how one book -- indeed, the same book -- could be banned by one community and embraced by another community, like the city of Chicago.

How does one book get banned in one city a few miles this way and embraced enthusiastically in another city a few miles this way? How does this book have the capacity to stir that kind of passion in people on so different -- on two different fronts the way it has?

LIRIANO: Honestly, I don't know. I really -- from what I understand the book was not really banned. It was just taken off the reading list. From what I've read and the woman who spoke earlier, she said that the book was still available in their library. So I'm not sure if it's exactly banned.

But Chicago, we are very diverse, and the reason we chose this book is that we wanted people to deal with the issues of racism and prejudice and intolerance and classism in a way that was not going threatening to them. And the fact that this book is -- the story is told in the voice of a 6-year-old, Scout, but I think it allows you to look at these very ugly and brutal things that come out of racism and intolerance in a way that's a -- that's a little bit more hopeful and optimistic, because ultimately that's what happens in the book, is that lessons are learned, especially the kids, Scout and Jem and Dill. And you have a feeling that they're going to make it a better world for everyone after going through this horrible experience.

SMILEY: We'll take a break. We'll come back. We've got some callers standing by who I want to get to. And I want to come back to this point that Maira makes. She said they chose this book, Johnetta, because it was not threatening. That's precisely the reason why Muskogee took it off the list, because they thought it was threatening and intimidating. I can't figure it out.

TALKBACK LIVE continues. Stay with us.


SMILEY: Welcome back to TALKBACK LIVE. Just a few minutes left in the program, I want to go someplace else that I promised, but I'm told that during the commercial break, we were able to confirm that on the phone we have with us now the teacher who started this controversy. Tobi Fillman is on the phone. Ms. Fillman, are you there?


SMILEY: Thank you for calling, first of all, I appreciate your call. What do you make of all the controversy that's now started because you didn't want this book taken off the list?

FILLMAN: I am shocked. I can't believe that it has started such a worldwide commotion, that I am pleased that enough people care that hopefully we will get it back on the reading list.

SMILEY: We were told earlier at the top of this program by a reporter in your hometown of Tulsa that you had left the school in Muskogee where you were teaching, transferred to another school. Is that true, number one, and if so, why did you leave?

FILLMAN: It is true. I am now going to be teaching in Awaso (ph) mid high, where they do teach "To Kill a Mockingbird" at 10th grade level, so I get to do that. And "To Kill a Mockingbird" was basically -- it was the straw -- it wasn't the full reason, a lot of things have been going on, and a lot of personal reasons behind it also.

SMILEY: Why you, though -- as I assume you are white, you are not African-American?


SMILEY: As a white woman, a white teacher, why are you so passionate about this particular book as to leave -- you say it's not the whole story, but still it's part of the story. You felt passionately enough about this book to leave your school to go to another where you can still reference this book. What so passionate are you about "To Kill a Mockingbird?"

FILLMAN: Well, for two reasons. The first reason -- my dad and my mother strongly believed that everyone was created equal and should be treated equal, and another side note to that is, you hear kids every day in the halls calling each other the "N" word, and my kids that I had in class didn't understand that.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" gave us that leeway, that venue, to discuss that and to discuss those reasons, and I felt that while I was there, that the climate in Muskogee high school was a little bit better because of "To Kill a Mockingbird," because it did open up those discussions.

SMILEY: We were told there were only roughly like seven parents who came forward to start this campaign. Is that what you understand, just a handful of parents?

FILLMAN: Actually, I understood it to be one parent and one person within the school.

SMILEY: Only one, not even seven?

FILLMAN: That was the way it was presented to us.

SMILEY: What do you make of this attempt -- I shouldn't say the attempt, it in fact is happening, we discussed it earlier before you came online, what do you make of the ongoing effort in this country to continue adding books? You are a teacher in the classroom every day, what do you make of this move in the country to keep banning books that we don't want kids to read because of sensitive or offensive material in those books? FILLMAN: Well, you know, the best way to get a kid to read something is to tell him he can't, and that's all we are doing. I think that if you want someone to know something, then tell them they can't learn it, tell them they can't know it, and you will get them to pick that novel or to pick up that short story or whatever. But I think it's ridiculous to ban pieces of literature.

SMILEY: I am glad you called, first of all. Give her a round of applause for calling, I appreciate your comment. Last word, about 20 seconds, Johnetta.

COLE: The last word that I have, brother Tavis, and I cannot document it, but it is said that during the height a apartheid, a book entitled "Black Beauty" was banned, because someone could not imagine anything that could be black and beautiful. The book was about a horse.

Books are, however, powerful instruments. They can teach, they can teach hate, but they can also teach tolerance. They can help us to understand what we have the capacity to do, and that is to push each other out of the human family. Let's use them to bring everybody in.

SMILEY: Couldn't have said it better myself. Thanks you all for coming on today. I am back tomorrow and the rest of the week, filling in for Bobbie Battista. TALKBACK LIVE again tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll see you then. Thanks for tuning in.



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