The Humanities, Harper Lee, and Fighting Injustice with Literature

Editor's Note: On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African-American man, tragically died after police kneeled on his back and neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since this event, unrest has spread across the US, stemming from deeply rooted racial injustices that plague both America's past and present.

In response to this situation, State Humanities Councils are raising their voices to speak out against racism, expressing how the humanities can be employed to heal communities across their states and facilitate meaningful conversations.

Below is the official statement of the South Dakota Humanities Council, as well as additional resources, including statements from other councils, about healing our society through the humanities.

Looking for a Cure

When we look to cure our physical ailments, we turn to science — especially now, when a vaccine is needed to stem a pandemic.

When we need a cure for society's metaphorical illnesses, why don't we turn to the humanities?

Why can't there be a vaccine, developed by experts, to cure bigotry, racism, xenophobia?

Why can't humanists cure our attitudes the way scientists cure our bodies?

They can. Humanists have been creating vaccines for many years. But too many choose to ignore them.

Context: What are the Humanities?

To promise a cure is bold. It requires context. However, we're used to giving people context, as we are often asked at the South Dakota Humanities Council: What is it you do, anyway?

We think it's simple: We help people understand how to be thoughtful humans. Ironically, all you need to be a humanities student is to be a person and be willing to learn. It starts with reading. Only then can you learn from expert humanists who've laid out formulas for life, for, among many other things, getting along with each other, plain as day — just as your body can learn from scientists how to fight viral disease. We encourage reading through our annual South Dakota Festival of Books and other humanities-based discussion programs and events. 

So, what are these humanistic vaccines?


They cure many disorders. You can apply different ones to different problems, as scientists develop different vaccines for different ailments.

In fact, a humanist created a vaccine for racism 60 years ago. It didn't need to be improved. It was a perfect formula. That's why we're offering it again today, to show you the power of the humanities to cure sociological ills. It is our duty.

Harper Lee's Vaccine

In 1960, Harper Lee wrote a memorable story about the evils of racism, ignorance, and presumption. Her book, "To Kill a Mockingbird," won many awards. Her message was perfect.

It was a vaccine, a preventative measure to avoid more problems like the ones she saw in her time.

Soon, we hope, the scientists racing for a coronavirus vaccine will find one. Once that vaccine exists, it will be consumed by the masses. There will be some disbelievers — the anti-vaxxers — but they'll likely take the vaccine itself at face value: it either exists, or it doesn't. They won't reject the scientific formula itself.
Sixty years from now, we expect to have a treatment for coronavirus. People won't try to reinvent it.

So why are we still arguing about how we should treat each other when a legendary humanist gave us a 99,121-word formula in 1960?

In "To Kill a Mockingbird," a story told in simple language, from a child's perspective, Lee's characters said:

" 'Atticus, he was real nice'.
'Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.' "

When you read these sentences, you feel their power. Can you think of a better way to model your behavior? Yet, people keep asking: "Why do things like George Floyd's death keep happening? Why can't we get along?"

We need to listen to the humanists as we listen to the scientists. We must listen to people who have said things better than we could ever say them ourselves. That comes from reading.

Books. Not social media feeds, not one another's opinions, but thoughtful ideas presented by thinkers.

Specifically, if you want to learn about preventing racial injustice, read Harper Lee's book. Remember her message and share it as often as you can:

"Mockingbirds don't do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Again, nobody can make you take this vaccine or share it.

But how many more mockingbirds have to die?

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