Art Spiegelman's graphic novel MAUS (1991) (photo by ActuaLitté via Flickr)

A Tennessee school board has banned Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus (1980-1992) from its eighth-grade language arts curriculum, citing its use of profanity and depictions of nudity. Spiegelman’s acclaimed series tells the story of his parents’ survival of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Poland during the Holocaust. It contains only one nude image representing the author’s mother’s dead body, who committed suicide when he was 20 years old.

The McMinn County School Board voted unanimously in favor of removing the book on January 10, but the decision only made headlines this week after the release of minutes of the meeting.

Speaking with CNBC, Spiegelman said he was “baffled” by the decision and called the school board’s behavior “Orwellian.”

“It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’” said the 73-year-old artist, adding, “I’ve met so many young people who … have learned things from my book.”

In the meeting’s minutes, the director of schools, Lee Parkinson, is quoted saying that “there is some rough, objectionable language in this book.”

Parkison then announced that after consulting with an attorney, “we decided the best way to fix or handle the language in this book was to redact it.”

“Considering copyright, we decided to redact it to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to,” he added.

But as board members expressed concerns about violating copyright laws, they decided to ban the book altogether in a 10-0 vote. However, the minutes show that a heated debate preceded the vote.

“I only have one question, how long does this book stay in our schools?” asked board member Tony Allman, according to the document. He later added: “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 assistant principal, retorted: “I can talk of the history, I was a history teacher and there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history.”

“Mr. Spiegelman did his very best to depict his mother passing away and we are almost 80 years away,” Goodin continued. “It’s hard for this generation, these kids don’t even know 9/11, they were not even born. For me this was his way to convey the message.”

Originally published in 1980, Spiegelman’s hand-illustrated novel features Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. The book received about a dozen literary awards over the years. In 1992, it became the first and only graphic to ever receive a Pultizer Prize.

Goodin received support from board member Melasawn Knight, who said: “I think any time you are teaching something from history, people did hang from trees, people did commit suicide and people were killed, over six million were murdered. I think the author is portraying that because it is a true story about his father that lived through that.”

Unpersuaded, Allman cited Spiegelman’s cartoons for Playboy magazine, adding, “We’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school.”

“If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening,” Allman continued. “If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”

Mincing no words, Spiegelman told CNBC: “I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented. There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”

Today, January 27, marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In May of 1933, students of the National Socialist Student Union, a division of the Nazi Party, and professors of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin (today’s Humboldt-Universität), burnt over 20,000 books by Jewish, communist, and liberal authors. The grim incident was memorialized in 1995 with the construction of the “Empty Library” monument (or “Bibliothek”) at the heart of Germany’s capital city.  

Spiegelman was joined in his denouncement of the school board’s decision by award-winning author Neil Gaiman, who tweeted: “There’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is Co-Editor of News at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative...