Banning Persepolis?

March 26, 2013

Alexander Billet looks at why Chicago's public schools are frightened of the graphic novel Persepolis.

MARJANE SATRAPI'S Persepolis has got to be one of the most important graphic novels of our time. Since its publication in 2000, the series has sold over a million and a half copies and won several awards. The 2007 film adaptation was nominated for an Oscar.

It has also been banned in Satrapi's native Iran. This isn't particularly surprising given how the author portrays her country since Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power in 1979. That it has ended up at the center of a controversy in Chicago's public schools, however, is certainly enough to take you aback--at least at first. To anyone who knows the ins and outs of the crises facing Chicago's schools and youth, it's sadly not as shocking.

On the evening of Thursday, March 14, word began to spread that the principal at Lane Tech High School had received an order to remove all copies of Persepolis from classrooms and libraries. Teachers were to be prohibited from using the book in their classes. Turns out the order went to all Chicago public schools. Friday morning is when things really started to catch fire, with coverage on comics websites, commentary on education blogs and many mainstream newspapers picking up the story. The Chicago Teachers Union issued a statement denouncing the book's removal.

Students at Lane Tech High School protest the banning of Persepolis
Students at Lane Tech High School protest the banning of Persepolis

So did Satrapi herself. And she didn't mince words: "I am ashamed of people who make these kinds of decisions."

By the time students at Lane Tech High School had announced their plans to hold a rally outside their school in protest of the ban, the school board was being forced to backpedal and claim that it was never really a "ban" per se. Rather, according to a statement released by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the book is unsuitable specifically for seventh-graders because of its "graphic language and images."

Says Byrd-Bennett, the images depicting torture and violence require that CPS "develop professional development guidelines, so that teachers can be trained to present this strong but important content. We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eighth through 10th grades."

LIKE MANY things emanating from Chicago's school board nowadays, this explanation stinks to high hell. Elementary and middle school students are taken to the Holocaust Museum every year, which features a great many disturbing images--images that don't require "training" to explain. But then, one should never underestimate the willingness of CPS to meddle with teachers' curricula--or insult the intelligence of its students.

The Occupied Chicago Tribune's Nick Burt is certainly right that the Chicago school board is a bureaucratic, unaccountable mess; this whole fiasco could have simply been a bad notion that they let slip away from them. For that same reason, CPS probably won't be forthcoming anytime soon with the ultimate culprit's identity. But someone clearly had the brilliant idea that now would be the perfect time for a besieged, scandal-wracked school board to mimic Joe McCarthy. Though we won't know who, there's a good bet why.

Says the Chicago Teachers Union's Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle:

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.

Like most cities trying to gut their school systems, CPS officials long for an acquiescent union--and fret about radicals in the ranks. This is a book that references Marx, Trotsky and Che Guevara. That may tell you all you need to know.

A related but seldom spoken-of factor is what the book might specifically tell young readers about their right to express themselves. Here, of course, is another trend that CPS is a bit afraid of. In the rush to close down and privatize every school they can get their hands on, arts and music programs have been first on the chopping block.

In contrast, one of the most memorable scenes in Persepolis comes when the young Marji is harassed by Guardians of the Revolution for her "Punk Is Not Ded" jacket right after she purchases illegal cassette tapes.

This also may be a bit too close for comfort. Dress codes and uniforms seem to be a favorite Band-Aid solution for school boards across the country. Provocative t-shirts, hoodies, spiked hair and mohawks, chain wallets and backwards ball caps all seem to have landed in the crosshairs of uptight administrations over the past two decades.

THOSE WHO doubt whether these measures are intended to do anything other than criminalize youth might want to check how many of these same cities are arguing for ordinances against sagging pants. The school-to-prison pipeline can easily be greased with dress-code violations.

Once again, there's much to gain from this kind of repression--and not just more bodies to populate our prisons or sweetheart deals with charter operators. Historically, the more youth subcultures are allowed to thrive, the more they're spurred on by adults who get the importance of them, the sooner they start to come up against the pervasive injustices that surround young people. The sooner they can learn lessons, and the sooner they can figure out how to challenge those who have denied them. If those who don't move don't notice their own chains, then CPS is rather intent on kids not moving at all.

Not that it appears to be working. The school board's "compromise" included the promise that Persepolis will be available in libraries. The problem is that of the 600-some-odd schools in Chicago, 160 don't even have libraries. Kids at Lane Tech aren't buying it. Monday morning saw them attempt to stage a sit-in at the school's library in protest against the school board's control freakery.

Despite assurances from the principal that they would be allowed to send a message to the school board, it appears at the time of this writing that the protest was blocked. "Books banned," writes retired teacher and activist Fred Klonsky. "Peaceful protest blocked. A teachable moment?"

Indeed. And it won't be the last.

First published at Red Wedge magazine.

Further Reading

From the archives