Every semester, especially when I teach asynchronous courses, I try to set up conversations with scholars and authors so that students don’t just hear and see me on the screen as they listen to the lecture. As I thought about Art Spiegelman’s Maus, I reached out to Michael Dando. I’ve spoken with Dando before about comics for his classes, specifically Luke Cage, and he has introduced me to countless works, recently Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism (2005) which I have talked about on this blog. I wanted to have someone like Dando on with me during the lecture for Maus I because of his work on comics but also because of the recent book bannings and proposed legislation that have popped up over the past year or two, notably the McCminn County school board’s unanimous decision in January to ban Maus from the classroom right before eighth graders were scheduled to read it.
The school board members removed the book, without reading it, and argued that it was not “appropriate” reading material for eighth graders. While we were in Norway, my daughter was in seventh grade, and she read Maus on her own, nothing happened. Nothing was set off. She encountered Vladek’s story, through his son Art, and came to a better understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust and its continued impact on the psyches of millions of individuals through the generational transmission of the trauma. One of the school board members, talking about why he chose to remove Maus, stated, after quoting lyrics from the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry” which is used to teach poetry,
So, my problem is, it looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language. If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it. You put this stuff just enough on the edges, so the parents don’t catch it but the kids, they soak it in. I think we need to relook at the entire curriculum.
Here, it looks like the issue isn’t necessarily the content of Maus discussing the Holocaust, and the school board members says that students need to learn about the Holocaust. Instead, the fear is that students will see Art’s mother naked, sitting in a bathtub full of blood, after she has committed suicide. This occurs in one small portion of a small panel amidst a book that is over 200 pages. As well, the fear is that students will see “vulgar” words. What the school board member argues, above, is that there is an “indoctrination” taking place when using texts such as this because it’s “subtle.” This is the same line of argument used in proposed legislation such as the “harmful to minors” bill here in Georgia and others.
In response to the school board’s removal or Maus, Spiegelman told over 10,000 people who attended a virtual event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga that Maus is “certainly about Jews, but it’s not just about Jews.” He continued by stating, “This is about othering and what’s going on now is about controlling … what kids can look at, what kids can read, what kids can see in a way that makes them less able to think, not more. And it takes the form of the criticisms from this board.” At its core, this is what the McMinn County school board, and proposed laws such as SB 377 in Georgia, do, limit what students can learn and see.
I say all of that to note that during our discussion of Maus Dando and I looked at specific moments in the text, but we spent a majority of the time talking about all of the information that we have learned that informs our reading of Maus or other texts about the Holocaust or World War II. We talked about the importance of not thinking about the Holocaust as the sole manifestation of one man’s evil but as the banality of evil. We talked about the need to know the threads that run through these issues, specifically the ways that the Nazis drew on Jim Crow laws for their atrocities and the ways that Civil Rights organizations, following the war, called upon the United Nations to investigate the United States for crimes against humanity, charging the United States with genocide. We discussed the prevalence of the German American Bund and Nazi sympathies in the United States.
We talked about these things because they inform Maus, not necessarily in a direct manner but in a manner that helps us read and understand the suffering of Vladek, Anja, and countless others. These things cause us to not look at the oversized individuals who loom large over history: Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill, etc. They cause us to look at the quotidian, the everyday, that banal. They cause us to see that we must think about this history not by merely looking at the bird’s eye view filled with facts, numbers, and statistics. We must look at it from ground level, from the eyes and experiences of those far removed from the smoke filled rooms where plans originated and strategies lay mapped out on tables.
We talked about all of this and much more. I hope that you will find this conversation useful. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham