One of my favorite books is Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman’s brilliant 1986 graphic novel that recounts his parents’ harrowing experiences during the Holocaust when they were imprisoned in Auschwitz. In the book, Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs. It is a richly and simply drawn blend of history, fiction, and memoir that captures the story of these survivors, their trauma, and the consequences for their son. The book is a complete artistic success, hailed widely as a masterpiece and awarded a Pulitzer, the first ever handed to a graphic novel. Not to overstate Maus’ significance, its publication legitimized this form of storytelling and marked a historic moment in American literature. In 1992, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition displaying Spiegelman’s original panels for the work. Two weeks ago, a Tennessee school board voted to ban the book.
That decision of the board of education of McMinn County—located in the southeastern part of the state—generated headlines. Maus was the anchor text for an eighth-grade module on the Holocaust, and the reason for knocking it out of the curriculum was that the book includes a few “cuss” words, as one county school board member put it, and depicts nudity (that is, illustrated animal nudity). The offending phraseology was “bitch” and “god damn.” Of course, it’s ridiculous to object to an account of the mass murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others because of salty language and (animal!) nudity. But that’s what happened. Spiegelman told the New York Times it seemed to him the board members were asking, “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?” To understand this decision—which was rendered just down the road from where the Scopes Monkey Trial occurred in 1925—I read through the minutes of the school board meeting devoted to Maus. It makes the story worse.
The session opened with Lee Parkison, the director of schools for the county, noting that “there is some rough, objectionable language in the book” and that two or three school board members came by his office to discuss it. He consulted with the attorney for the school system, Scott Bennett, and they decided the best fix was to redact “eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to.” Apparently, that was not sufficient.
Board member Tony Allman remarked, “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.” Julie Goodin, an instructional supervisor who used to teach history, patiently explained to Allman that “there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history.” Allman wouldn’t relent: “I understand that on TV and maybe at home these kids hear worse, but we are talking things that if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined and rightfully so. And we are teaching this and going against policy.” Melasawn Knight, another instructional supervisor, took a stab at it: “People did hang from trees, people did commit suicide, and people were killed, over six million murdered… [Spiegelman] is trying to portray that the best he can with the language that he chooses that would relate to that time…Is the language objectionable? Sure. I think that is how he used that language.”