.ews about the McMinn County School Board’s unanimous decision to strike Maus from its curriculum made national headlines. Not only was Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work the anchor text for a module on the Holocaust – it is shockingly ironic that the decision to remove it was rendered as the world prepared for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Spiegelman’s response to this turn of events? The board’s decision is “not good for their children, even if they think it is.” And Professor Brett Ashley Kaplan is here to tell us why. The following essay by Dr. Kaplan also addresses why the banning of Maus and other books under threat, should be reversed.
I’m a Professor at the University of Illinois and Director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies who has taught both Toni Morrison’s brilliant novel Beloved and Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus multiple times.
It is no accident that both of these superb books are banned or under threat of banning at this fraught historical moment where we witness an aggressive, terrifying, and unwelcome rise in white supremacy. Beloved and Maus threaten the right because they are both complex narratives that invite readers who have not themselves been slaves or who have not themselves survived the Holocaust to glimpse these traumatic histories and experiences.
Neither book flattens or sugarcoats its realities. Both have gone a long way in provoking empathy.
And this will not do for those who wish to push a white supremacist agenda. Empathy, radical care for an other, being invited to see inside an other’s story are very scary emotions for racists and anti-Semites because that very empathy blocks hatred.
Why do I choose to teach both of these books? Because it is through carefully crafted art that we can begin to see others. And when we do that, we are less likely to cause harm, more likely to care.
When I last taught Beloved, the students learned so much: Margaret Garner, the historical model for Morrison’s main character, in 1856 faced a truly terrible choice. She faced what Holocaust survivors have come to call a choiceless choice. Rather than allow her daughter to be returned to slavery she took her life. It’s an unimaginably painful choice for a mother to make. There is no stronger way to grasp the horror of slavery than to understand that Margaret Garner made this choiceless choice. My students learn this. They also learn something about writing from the person I consider to be the best American writer of the twentieth century. Reading Beloved, my students tell me, changed their lives. Some of my students are the descendants of slaves, others are not. But they were able to see how haunting works, to understand that this legacy is still very much alive for the characters, is still very much alive for us, no matter what our identities.
This is why the brilliant 1619 project also felt threatening, and why critical race theory scares. I plan to teach the 1619 project and critical race theory because these, too, teach empathy.
There is no question that Maus is a watershed moment for many of my students. Art Spiegelman wrote Maus from his own memories of his family’s story of trauma, resilience, survival, and death. It’s not a simple narrative. Rendered in graphic memoir form that many undergraduates immediately gravitate towards, it conveys all the complexity of inheriting traumatic memories, all the love for a troubled father, all the ways in which Holocaust survivors both demonstrate their capacity to move beyond the worst and, at the same time and in tension with this, carry like burning coals memories that are so beyond what those of us who sleep in comfortable beds, can expect to eat food every day, and have never been hunted as though we were animals can ever understand. Maus has proven to be a beautiful, difficult portal into Holocaust history that has transformed the understanding of this awful past for so many students, in so many places. Maus has also transformed the graphic novel and graphic memoir, opening pathways for many other voices to gain a wider audience and be seen, heard, and cared for. In response to the McMinn County school board’s decision to ban Maus, I am adding Maus to my fall syllabus. This banning is censorship that smacks of the exact same modes of thought control that enabled the Nazi genocide.
The banning of Maus and threats against Beloved must be reversed so that democracy can thrive. I believe that the McMinn County School Board are resilient enough to recognize that they have made a mistake.
Please note: This essay first appeared in the Feb. 3, 2022 edition of The News Gazette in Champaign, Illinois.
Plus, be sure to check out Professor Kaplan on Illinois Public Media’s The 21st Show, where they discuss the question of “What’s behind the recent wave of censorship in schools?”
Brett Ashley Kaplan Directs the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies at the University of Illinois where she is a professor of Comparative and World Literature and Director of Graduate Studies. She publishes in Haaretz, The Conversation, Salon.com (picked up from Conversation), Asitoughttobemagazine, AJS Perspectives, Contemporary Literature, Edge Effects, and The Jewish Review of Books. She has been interviewed on NPR, the AJS Podcast, and The 21st, and is the author of Unwanted Beauty, Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory, and Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth. Her novel, Rare Stuff, is due out in June 2022 brettashleykaplan.com.