Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Maus Banned

Just in time for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a Tennessee school district has banned Maus, an amazing, Pulitzer-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about his family but especially his father, Vladek, who survived the Holocaust. The Associated Press reports that the ban was...

...due to "inappropriate language" and an illustration of a nude woman, according to minutes from a board meeting. . . .

In an interview, Spiegelman told CNBC he was "baffled" by the school board's decision and called the action "Orwellian."

"It's leaving me with my jaw open, like, 'What?'" he said.

The decision comes as conservative officials across the country have increasingly tried to limit the type of books that children are exposed to, including books that address structural racism and LGBTQ issues. The Republican governors in South Carolina and Texas have called on superintendents to perform a systemic review of "inappropriate" materials in their states' schools.

The minutes from the school board meeting indicate objections over some of the language used in "Maus." At first, Director of Schools Lee Parkison suggested redacting it "to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to."

The nude woman is drawn as a mouse. In the graphic novel, Jews are drawn as mice and the Nazis are drawn as cats. . . .

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which does not play a role in McMinn County, noted the timing of the news on Twitter. Weingarten, who is Jewish, pointed out that Thursday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Yes it is uncomfortable to talk about genocide, but it is our history and educating about it helps us not repeat this horror," Weingarten said.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum tweeted that "Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. . . .

"Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today."

The Tennessee school board emphasized in the minutes that they did not object to teaching about the Holocaust but some were concerned the work was not age-appropriate.

This is a stunningly bad if not entirely surprising decision. It sure seems to be yet another case of conservatives rejecting good art (and accurate history) out of prudishness and a desire to control their children. But such attempts, in addition to being harmful, rarely succeed in the long run.

As I've written before, Maus is a good introduction to the Holocaust. I used excerpts from it when I was teaching high school, at least one other colleague taught the entire series, and I knew some students read it on their own. I wouldn't give Maus to elementary school kids, but it's completely appropriate for high school students and many junior high students as well.

When I first saw the cover of Maus and heard the pitch – Jews as mice and Nazis as cats?!? – my concern was that it seemed like a cartoonish, oversimplified approach to the Holocaust. But I heard from several people who read Maus and assured me it was not simplistic, and was actually really good. That's all true, and the series is well worth checking out if you haven't yet.

Maus recounts, in detail, what happened to Art Spiegelman's father Vladek and how he survived in Nazi-occupied Poland and later Auschwitz, through luck but also ingenuity and courage. Spiegelman also depicts his fraught relationship with his father in the present day and Vladek's failings, as well as his own. Spiegelman even interrogates the creation of Maus itself and questions if depicting Jews, Nazis, and other groups as animals trivializes the Holocaust, and whether the series' success means he's exploiting a great tragedy. Maus is a complex, multilayered work, suitable for younger readers, and interesting and instructive as a Holocaust survivor's story, but it also raising some pretty significant questions about the nature of history, art, memory, and judgment. It's an engaging read, and can also be a bit emotionally exhausting, as pretty much any good, honest Holocaust tale is.

Something positive has come out of the ban, because a number of people – some famous, some not – are buying copying of Maus and donating them to Tennessee libraries. And the news stories about the ban is introducing new people to the existence of Maus. Maybe they'll check it out to see what all the fuss is about. Conservative attempts to ban something can backfire.

Years ago I lent my copies of Maus to my father, who had introduced me to comics, and he was impressed by the series as well. From where I'm sitting, I can glance over to a bookcase and see those same copies of Maus, sitting atop a copy of Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved. That's also an amazing work, but should only be read when someone's well-acquainted with the Holocaust already. Maus has a great track record in that regard, introducing people to the Holocaust. Let students read it, and may the efforts to provide more copies in Tennessee libraries and elsewhere flourish.