Before School Censors: When Mockingbird‘s Harper Lee Spoke Proudly of Flagler County
FlaglerLive | November 1, 2010
“Atticus,” Scout asks her father, in one of the celebrated scenes of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, “what exactly is a nigger-lover?”
“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody.”
- Citing Vague Fears, School District Suppresses Stage Production of To Kill a Mockingbird
- Harper Lee’s Letter to Mary Ann Clark and Flagler County (pdf)
- The June 13, 1960 Review of Mockingbird in The New York Times
The scene is quoted in the review of the novel in the July 13, 1960 issue of The New York Times, a family newspaper. It is the sort of scene using that one word that led Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Jacob Oliva and Superintendent Janet Valentine to cancel a student stage production of Mockingbird three weeks into rehearsals. The district feared repercussions. Oliva objects to what he calls “profanity” used anywhere on campus, even on stage, by students. Valentine, without citing specifics but relying on the equally vague warnings of vaguer voices in the community—not faculty, not students, not anyone involved in the play—said student safety warranted the cancellation.
The decision, controversial in its own right, set off a debate over race relations locally, censorship, Flagler County’s image, and above all, historical memory and a school district’s role in controlling whether and how students engage with issues that cut to the heart of cultural identities.
What would Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, think of the school district’s decision to cancel the production? As it turns out, Lee addressed Flagler County directly in a March 27, 2002 letter, when she wrote of her “great honor” that the county chose To Kill a Mockingbird as the first book to read in its annual, community-wide program, “Flagler Reads Together.” The program was organized by Mary Ann Clark through the Friends of the Flagler County Library—a half dozen events featuring the book, hundreds of readers across the county, showings of the movie, and yes, a student, stage production of the courtroom scene from Mockingbird.
Clark wrote Lee of the upcoming events, not thinking the reclusive author, who rarely gives interviews, would respond. She did, on her clickety old typewriter. She wrote: “It is a great honor for To Kill a Mockingbird to be chosen as the first book for ‘Flagler Reads Together.’ I hope that the event becomes an annual one and that the book so chosen will bring together people of all backgrounds to share their experiences of life. When this happens, cultural barriers begin to come down and people discover that they are not so far apart after all. Good reading to everybody!”
The stage performance of Mockingbird was the culmination of the month-long events around the book. The performance was not only public: it was staged in Judge Sharon Atack’s courtroom in the old courthouse, to a near-packed audience, according to an article from the time. “The kids had no objection to using the word ‘nigger’ as I recall. This was eight years ago. That’s what happened then.”
Mary Beale, for 20 years the drama director at Flagler Palm Coast High School, directed the production. Beale retired from FPC last year. She now teaches English at an American school in Cairo (the same school headed by former Superintendent Bill Delbrugge). Contacted by phone this morning, Beale said that play at the courthouse “was received so well by all kinds of people and people of all ages in the community, and my students learned a great deal from involving themselves in the characters.”
In her 20 years, Beale had produced her share of controversial plays. She recalled one in particular, produced when Delbrugge was principal around the same time as the staging of Mockingbird. “He handled all of it very well I thought, that was ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ which essentially is an anti-censorship story. There were some objections to it from the community, which he responded to in a very favorable manner in that this was literature, and in the context of the literature, it was acceptable content. In fact I didn’t know that there had been objections until we had a conversation about it later when he said there’d been some, and he’d run interference on it.”
Valentine and Jacob say the current drama director, Ed Koczergo, did not follow “protocol” by not bringing the script to the principal’s attention before going ahead with the play, which was originally scheduled for four performances Nov. 12-14 at the auditorium. Had Oliva known the script contained the word “nigger,” he would have objected, or been better prepared to handle the issue.
The claim is hollow on two counts: As lead actor Eddie Green recalls, “When Mr. K sent out the audition fliers, he put on there that the N word was going to be used. They got posted all over the school.” Koczergo himself confirms it: “The audition notice stated specifically that the ‘N-word’ was in the production and would be used. So people were well aware of that and I also read passages of it in my classroom, and no one said anything about.” For the administration to suggest that it was blindsided by the appearance of the word suggests that the principal and his assistants, or teachers, don’t pay attention to what goes up on their schoolhouse walls.
Second, Koczergo had no reason to seek the principal’s approval for the play since Clark bought the play for Flagler Palm Coast High School students’ drama department in 2002, from Dramatic Publishing. Fifteen copies were bought for $5.95 a copy. “I can understand why Mr. Koczergo would assume that it would be an acceptable production to do,” Beale said, given the drama department’s occasional forays into more daring territory. (Beale is teaching “The Crucible,” at the moment in Cairo, a play she also staged at FPC.)
50th Anniversary Celebration of Mockingbird This Weekend:
- the Friends of the Flagler County Library this week are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the book over two days, Nov. 5 and 6. On Nov. 5 at the library (at 2 p.m.), the author John Cowardin, a friend of Harper Lee’s, will share stories of his friendship and Mockingbird memorabilia. The following day, at 11:30 a.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn, author Lisa Unger will speak about her own book, Fragile, at the Friends’ annual luncheon. On the 6th, the movie will be shown at the library’s meeting room at 1:30 p.m.
The administration’s claim that student performers would be at risk of becoming “pawns” in a political controversy, or that they would be subjected to ridicule, is equally hollow. It is based on speculation that has yet to produce any evidence, including from Oliva and Valentine (who say there are no notable racial issues at the high school). The claim is discredited by the same drama department, with different students, staging key parts of the production at the courthouse. The courtroom scene in Mockingbird has four characters using the word “nigger” in a context that shows the characters’ ignorance.
The Flagler County School Board discussed the matter during a workshop Thursday afternoon, at Board Member Colleen Conklin’s request. Conklin wants to see the production staged in the future. She says the controversy could be “a beautiful thing”—if it’s used to educate students and the community about the book’s very purpose, which Harper Lee addresses in her letter to Flagler County: to “bring together people of all backgrounds” so that “cultural barriers begin to come down.”
The board was not that interested. Andy Dance, who has spoken supportively of seeing the play revived in the right circumstances, was mostly silent, as was Trevor Tucker. Sue Dickinson was absent, though in a subsequent conversation she was clearly wrestling with the issue. Oliva, the principal, said: “I still have concerns with students using profanity in any performance.” And when Conklin suggested that the play could be revived in the proper context, with prefacing warnings and teachable moments, Valentine said that was not the intent when the play was originally canceled. She reiterated Oliva’s position: in a “controlled” setting such as a classroom, where Mockingbird is taught and shown, the use of the word “nigger” is acceptable because it can be put in context. Beyond the school, it wouldn’t be so controlled.
The position reflected another common fear from those supporting the cancellation, including John Winston, the black leader of a mentor program whose name is among the very few to be cited in support of the school district’s decision–that students would not be able to handle the issue without shepherding from adults.
“That’s ridiculous,” Beale, the drama director, said. “I don’t think it’s true. I think young people are much more open-minded and resilient today than they’ve ever been.” Fears of a backlash, she said, are blown out of proportion.
But the school board, which has the ultimate say on the matter, is deferring to Valentine.
“The decision has been made and I think we should let it rest,” Evie Shellenberger, the board chairwoman, said, in one of her last and most surprising decisions as a board member.
The jury never saw the light in Mockingbird, either.