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Chicago Public Schools’ Ban of ‘Persepolis’ Continues to Face Challenge from Anti-Censorship Alliance

Creative Commons-licensed photo on Flickr by motagirl2

An alliance of nonprofit organizations committed to promoting freedom of thought and free expression has been challenging a decision by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to ban Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis. It has also sought more information on what led to the decision by filing Freedom of Information Act requests.

As part of the “Kids’ Right to Read Project,” an initiative of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a letter was written to the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, on March 17. NCAC urged Byrd-Bennett to “reconsider the recent decision to remove the award-winning and critically acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis from 7th to 10th grade classrooms in Chicago Public Schools.”

On March 14, Christopher Dignam, who is the principal of Lane Tech High School, sent out an e-mail that informed staff of a mandate that had been issued:

Yesterday afternoon, one of the Network Instructional Support Leaders stopped by my office and informed me (per a directive given during the Chief of Schools meeting on March 11) that all ISLs were directed to physically go to each school in the Network by Friday (3/15) to:*Confirm that Persepolis is not in the library,*Confirm that it has not been checked out by a student or teacher,*Confirm with the school principal that it is not being used in any classrooms,*And to collect the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi from all classrooms and the Library. I was not provided a reason for the collection of Persepolis. If I learn more I will inform all staff…

As NCAC puts it, schools were required to “remove the graphic novel Persepolis from libraries and classrooms and stop teaching the book.”

The move sparked protest, including a “read-in” at Lane Tech to speak out against the censorship. Satrapi responded when kids reached out to her, “This is not some weird state. This is Chicago,” the author said. “I have met with kids and never had any question. I don’t know what the problem is.”

Chicago Teachers Union’s financial secretary, Kristine Mayle, commented on behalf of CTU:

We are surprised ‘Persepolis: A Story of Childhood’ would be banned by the Chicago Public School (CPS) system.  The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran. We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this– at a time when they are closing schools–because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues. There’s even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles.  There’s a lot of merit in Marjane Satrapj’s graphic novel. Not only is it thoughtful, it can be instructive for young people, especially girls. Persepolis can help our students begin to think about the world around them. We hope CPS has not reverted back to the 1950s.

On March 15, Byrd-Bennett sent out an email standing behind the removal of the book from seventh grade classrooms, even though as NCAC points out it “was selected for inclusion in the seventh grade Literacy Content Framework.” This email also indicated the book would be removed from grades 8-10 until there could be “further evaluation by administrators.”

“We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eight through tenth grades,” Ms. Byrd-Bennett wrote.

CPS general counsel James L. Bebley defended the decision by Byrd-Bennett on March 20: “CPS administrators are in the process of considering whether Persepolis is appropriate for the eighth through tenth grade curricula, with appropriate teacher training. Due to the graphic images of torture (depictions of a man urinating on another and placing a hot iron on another’s back), as well as obscene language in the book, they determined it is not appropriate for use in the seventh grade curriculum.”

Persepolis happens to be a part of a curriculum endorsed by CPS called “Speak Truth to Power.” The curriculum, NCAC highlights, was “created in 2011 in collaboration” with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. It is featured in a unit on Equal Rights, “with a particular focus on violence against women.”

In its first letter, NCAC dismissed the idea that it be removed for a scene of violence. “The vast majority of Chicago middle school students are surely aware of the reality of violence and its devastating effects on people of all ages. Most have witnessed it on the news, if not in their own neighborhoods.” (Five hundred homicides occurred and over 2,400 shootings took place in Chicago in 2012.)

Satrapi told DNAinfo.com, in response to CPS concerns, “Give me a break. The book is 10 years old. This is the first time I hear about it traumatizing children. No one has been traumatized until now.”

“They think kids are stupid,” she continued. “Who do they think 12-year-olds are? They’re not babies. Children are not dumb.” And, added that “life is not all ‘beautiful flowers … Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.'”

Additionally, in a second letter sent on April 9, the NCAC called attention to the Supreme Court, which recently affirmed how violent content was protected expression and noted:

…The books we give children to read—or read to them when they are younger—contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grimindeed….Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake.…. In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island. Brown v. EMA

NCAC suggested CPS could apply the same rationale they are applying to Persepolis to the graphic novel, Maus, by Art Spiegelman that is “like Persepolis in form.” This book, which visually presents and discusses violence, is currently being used to teach the horrors of the Holocaust to students in Chicago and other schools around the country. [NCAC, in its FOIA request, also sought records at Lane Tech High School related to the graphic novel, Ulysses.]

No process was apparently put in place to remove this book from classrooms. There is no clear constitutionally valid concerns underlying this decision and, therefore, it makes what has been done even more indefensible.

“There is no pedagogical rationale for the removal of the book, but rather that the explanation offered now is a post-hocrationalization for a poorly conceived and executed decision,” NCAC wrote.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), in their stated rationale for having the novel taught in classes, wrote, “Persepolis is a book that has a place in every classroom and library.”

“Several reviewers complement the graphic novel style, stating that it conveys an important message in an accessible way. All reviews agree that this is a book that is beneficial for all who read it, that provides insight to an unfamiliar culture and breaks stereotypes,” NCTE concluded. But, perhaps, that is the problem.

In the midst of a seemingly perpetual war on terrorism in countries with Muslim populations and during a period where Muslims in America in the US have faced bigotry, profiling, increased surveillance, infiltration of their communities by law enforcement agents and arrests and imprisonment often for trumped-up terrorism charges, NCTE understands the book challenges the negative portrayal of the Middle East and Muslim stereotypes that are often prevalent in school textbooks. It is unknow if this is part of why administrators decided to censor this book in schools, but it may be a possibility.

Finally, while some documentation of this decision was provided to NCAC under FOIA, there is evidence indicating some of the information on this decision is being withheld. NCAC has filed another FOIA request because CPS is not only defending a blatant act of censorship that violates freedom of expression with no reasonable basis, but it is also resorting to secrecy to cover up what happened so, hopefully, those paying attention will forget this happened and leave CPS alone.

CommunityFDL Main BlogThe Dissenter

Chicago Public Schools’ Ban of ‘Persepolis’ Continues to Face Challenge From Anti-Censorship Alliance

An alliance of nonprofit organizations committed to promoting freedom of thought and free expression has been challenging a decision by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to ban Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis. It has also sought more information on what led to the decision by filing Freedom of Information Act requests.

Persepolis

As part of the “Kids’ Right to Read Project,” an initiative of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a letter was written to the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, on March 17. NCAC urged Byrd-Bennett to “reconsider the recent decision to remove the award-winning and critically acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis from 7th to 10th grade classrooms in Chicago Public Schools.”

On March 14, Christopher Dignam, who is the principal of Lane Tech High School, sent out an e-mail that informed staff of a mandate that had been issued:

Yesterday afternoon, one of the Network Instructional Support Leaders stopped by my office and informed me (per a directive given during the Chief of Schools meeting on March 11) that all ISLs were directed to physically go to each school in the Network by Friday (3/15) to:*Confirm that Persepolis is not in the library,*Confirm that it has not been checked out by a student or teacher,*Confirm with the school principal that it is not being used in any classrooms,*And to collect the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi from all classrooms and the Library. I was not provided a reason for the collection of Persepolis. If I learn more I will inform all staff…

As NCAC puts it, schools were required to “remove the graphic novel Persepolis from libraries and classrooms and stop teaching the book.”

The move sparked protest, including a “read-in” at Lane Tech to speak out against the censorship. Satrapi responded when kids reached out to her, “This is not some weird state. This is Chicago,” the author said. “I have met with kids and never had any question. I don’t know what the problem is.”

Chicago Teachers Union’s financial secretary, Kristine Mayle, commented on behalf of CTU:

We are surprised ‘Persepolis: A Story of Childhood’ would be banned by the Chicago Public School (CPS) system.  The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran. We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this– at a time when they are closing schools–because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues. There’s even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles.  There’s a lot of merit in Marjane Satrapj’s graphic novel. Not only is it thoughtful, it can be instructive for young people, especially girls. Persepolis can help our students begin to think about the world around them. We hope CPS has not reverted back to the 1950s.

On March 15, Byrd-Bennett sent out an email standing behind the removal of the book from seventh grade classrooms, even though as NCAC points out it “was selected for inclusion in the seventh grade Literacy Content Framework.” This email also indicated the book would be removed from grades 8-10 until there could be “further evaluation by administrators.” [cont’d.] (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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