I just read that a Tennessee school board is banning the graphic novel Maus, and boy am I pissed off. Banning books protects no innocent child, but instead makes it less likely that true education and social justice aims can be reached.
Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust is a classic for many reasons: it sensitively and accurately addresses the horrors of the Holocaust, it is artistically interesting and beautiful, and it is a useful teaching tool in many disciplines and subjects.
I am reminded of another Holocaust novel I teach: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. It blends the fairy tale of “Sleeping Beauty” with a family story about surviving the Holocaust, and it always reaches students in touching and sometimes unexpected ways. As another fairy-tale author, Terri Windling reminds us, fantasy and fairy tales can be used to help us tell the hard stories, and it remains crucially “important for adult readers to have such books as well, as the daily news keeps reminding us.”
The school board members who voted to censor Maus cited its language and graphic imagery. This, to me, is rather like being offended by a cloud and deciding to nuke the entire sky. Like oh no, how dare we ruminate on the human experience—a rather abysmal one at that—and mention aspects of humanity like nudity, sexuality, and swear words?
How trivializing, how banal, how narrow-minded to censor a book about the goddamned Holocaust by objecting to some of the textual details in it.
Access to quality education is a social justice issue, and an “education” that purports that it’s okay to censor and ban books is no education at all, but rather, bigotry (or bigotry waiting in the wings) dressed up in school clothes.
Education helps us make sense of the world; it gives us tools to understand the natural world, the social world, and everything between the two. Cutting someone off from important historical facts is like shutting down the body’s organs one at a time.
Maybe we can live with one kidney, or without our appendix, or gallbladder. Maybe we’ve got the medical wherewithal to do it and be just fine.
But when enough systems start malfunctioning, whether through malice or bodies just being jerks, our worldview suffers, and we are less likely to see the connections between all the forms of oppression and bigotry and our own life circumstances.
And, we’re less likely to see the way forward to free ourselves and others.
From a social justice perspective, wanting to draw attention away from atrocities should make us ask: why do these people want this atrocity hidden? What do they stand to gain by doing so?
From a personal perspective, I know all too well that hiding under the polite veneer of “appropriateness” often lies a hatred for marginalized people. Some people loathe the fact that they can’t be openly homophobic anymore, but they’ll try their best to make sure queer history and queer people are never explicitly mentioned in school curricula or “polite” society. I can’t speak for every queer person but I refuse to hide who I am just because some people believe it’s not appropriate for kids to know that people like me exist. The same is true for many marginalized identities, for many historical (and ongoing) atrocities that expose the bigotry of people who were, are, will be in power.
Censorship in education is a move to disempower some people—in this case, survivors wanting their stories told—and empower others, like bigots, or bigots in training. Taking a social justice approach to education demands that we pay attention to the distribution of power, and empower our students to actually do something about it.