Our darkest moments of history are 'pervasively vulgar' and must be taught
While at a recent school board meeting, I felt the mood in the room intensify as students and parents addressed the Katy Independent School District. Some watched in dismay, while others left the lectern with proud confidence. It had been a battle for months to see whose voice was really heard at these meetings.
The district had initiated an internal review in February of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and “Maus II” – graphic novels that narrate the author’s retelling of his father’s experience living in war-torn Europe and during the Holocaust.
Prompted by this review, community members galvanized into action at the March board meeting and desperately pleaded for the district to keep the books on school shelves. Several shared their stories facing antisemitism and defended students’ freedom to read. But other speakers, who spewed bigotry at meetings throughout the year, continued calling for book banning.
Fortunately, just days later, Katy ISD made a favorable decision: the “Maus” series was to be kept available to middle and high school students.
The district and others nationwide, however, must be cautious about unnecessary and harmful decisions to ban books.
It is imperative that students have access to affirming literature and uncensored history through school libraries because Nazis banned – in fact, burned – books to intimidate Jews. If schools shelter students from learning how unrestrained humanity can be at its darkest moment, inhumanity will repeat itself because our pain will be forgotten.
“Maus” is one of those stories that must be retold, and efforts to ban it are dangerously following the same path that led to the atrocities from which the book bleeds.
The debate over what type of content should be in schools and how much say parents have in district-wide decisions has become increasingly contentious and hostile. The Katy community is no stranger to this conflict. And, the issue has become more politically driven and hate-ridden than simply a sensible discussion of parental choice.
Book challenges continue each month across the state, disproportionately impacting BIPOC and LGBTQ+ books, authors and storylines. Regrettably, this trend also is reflected nationwide.
PEN America collated an Index of School Book Bans in April 2022. The index reveals 1,586 instances – 713 in Texas, alone – of school districts banning individual books.
School districts use a “pervasively vulgar” standard from ITSD v. Pico (1982) to remove books from libraries in accordance with their EF(local) policy.
The specifics of this judgment remain undefined, paving the way for books like “Night,” by Elie Wiesel and “Anne Frank’s Diary: the Graphic Adaptation,” by Ari Folman to be restricted to certain grade levels in Katy.
“The Holocaust was vulgar,” parent Rhonda Kaplan said at the board meeting in support of “Maus” and Holocaust education, drawing a critical comparison to the standard for reviewing books and the harsh reality of antisemitism that her children have faced in Katy schools.
Decisions made by district officials directly affect students, and many have organized to support intellectual freedom. Students representing Katy 4 Justice and national nonprofit Voters of Tomorrow led efforts to distribute approximately 200 challenged books, including “Maus,” during a “FReadom Week” at high schools across the district. More than 600 books have been distributed by the groups since.
When calls to ban books outweigh the freedom to read and learn, a school district becomes less of an educational foundation to prepare students for success and more of a degenerate system for upholding an unjust status quo.
Schools must provide students with access to materials that teach uncensored history – our history – rather than tell us that our pain is too vulgar. Our pain bleeds through “Maus,” “Night,” and “Anne Frank’s Diary.” Retelling our history is FReadom.
Cameron Samuels (they/them) is a community organizer from Katy, Texas who has led efforts for LGBTQ+ inclusion, voting rights, and gun violence prevention. As a firm believer in the power that comes from organized people, Cameron has advocated for these causes by uplifting voices through journalism, digital organizing, and photography. Their work has been published in the National Coalition Against Censorship, Religious Action Center, Washington Blade, the local Jewish Herald-Voice, and various other publications.
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