As the nation observes Black History Month, many stories of racism and equality are removed from schools.
Here at UWT, in Tacoma and around the Puget Sound, we enjoy a progressive bubble of democratic sympathies. It’s easy to forget that around the country, more and more people are falling sway to authoritarian and regressive viewpoints.
This phenomenon did not happen overnight but has been the result of decades of right wing efforts to erode democratic values within our country.
Education and cultural understanding are essential in the development and permanence of democratic ideals but our basic animalistic instincts of aggression and self-preservation are an omnipresent specter, lying in wait to emerge in our hearts once again.
This last year, our democracy and values have become frailer than ever before. Attempts to revise inaccurate historical education have received notorious backlash, and a wave of undemocratic voter suppression laws has passed in multiple states.
It is not just the ballot box or the classroom which has been targeted either. School libraries– arguably the most important room of any school–have been the subject of a historic level of state-mandated book bans in states like Texas and Tennessee.
According to NBC, nearly 100 bans have taken effect in 75 different school districts in Texas alone. Many of the books on the banned list focus on themes of equality, racism and LGBTQ+ identity.
Books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck offer crucial perspectives on the worst excesses of racism and ableism and call their readers to value empathy and equality.
Thanks to some Texan parents and communities, these books have been removed from school libraries for “being too political” or that their depictions of race and racism were “harmful to children.”
Books like “The Lawn Boy ” by Johnathan Evison and “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier have also been the subject of ban demands by Texan parents. These books both provide LGBTQ+ perspectives and are a critical source of representation and understanding for LGBTQ+ students.
Texan parents have been demanding these books be banned for depicting sexuality and promoting gender fluid or homosexual acceptance. Much of the conservative outrage is based on the idea that these books “sexualize” their kids or encourage them to “question their sexual orientation when they don’t even comprehend what that means.”
I can’t help but wonder if these parents would be equally outraged by the same sexual content if it was depicted by heterosexual characters.
In my mind, the most shocking book ban this year has been the recent banning of the graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. The only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, “Maus” tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of the author’s father who lived through the events.
The story is told with Jews being depicted as anthropomorphic mice and the Nazis as cats. The artwork is exceptional, and the personal story of Mr. Spiegelman’s survival is a shocking addition to the WWII storytelling canon.
Yet school districts in Tennessee have banned it based on a few panels which depict female rats being stripped naked before being sent to the gas chamber.
I have personally read “Maus” and seen the panels in question, no genitalia are depicted and any who would argue that the scenes are somehow sexual or provocative is seriously missing the point of the entire story. Such a person’s opinion shouldn’t be considered at all.
As a future historical educator, these bans hit me at a personal level. History is arguably one of the most important subjects to a healthy democracy. The study of history allows us to see the world we left behind when we decided to adopt democratic and empathetic values. It reminds us of what is in store for us if we give up on each other and trust in tyrants once again.
Yet the study of history can often be stale, overly academic and stuffy. Quality historical fiction and period pieces like “Maus” or “Of Mice and Men” offer some of the best tools to expose the general public to important historical lessons. They can be the spoonful of sugar which makes the historical medicine go down.
The fact that many of these bans have been inspired by anti-critical race theory movements makes them all the more troubling. Particularly since many of them are taking effect as the country observes Black History Month.
Yet one source of hope and a certain degree of humorous irony is that many of these books are now seeing record sales in response to the bans. Comic book stores around the country and billionaire Ronald Launder are sending free copies of “Maus” to anyone in Tennessee who asks for them.
Our democracy has taken some serious hits this past year but the national outrage over these book bans is proof that we are still in the fight.
In the words of the author Stephen King:
“Don’t spend time waving signs or carrying petitions around the neighborhood. Instead, run, don’t walk, to the nearest non-school library or to the local bookstore and get whatever it was that they banned. Read whatever they’re trying to keep out of your eyes and your brain because that’s exactly what you need to know.”