Case Study: Persepolis

Persepolis

(c) Marjane Satrapi/Pantheon

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution, has received international acclaim since its initial publication in French. When it was released in English in 2003, both Time Magazine and the New York Times recognized it as one of the best books of the year. In 2007 it was adapted as an animated film, which was nominated for an Oscar and won the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize and a French César. Although it was certainly controversial in the Middle East, there were no publicly reported challenges or bans of the book in U.S. schools or libraries until March 2013, when Chicago Public Schools administrators abruptly pulled it from some classrooms.

The circumstances surrounding the ban remain unclear to this day. In an email to employees, principal Christopher Dignam of Lane Tech College Prep High School initially said that he had been instructed by district administrators to remove Persepolis from the school’s library in addition to discontinuing its use in classrooms. Predictably, a furor ensued as students and teachers held protests and anti-censorship groups including CBLDF demanded an explanation. The day after Dignam’s email, district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent another email to principals claiming that the intention was never to remove the book from libraries, but only from classrooms due to “graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use.” The book was approved for use in grade 11 classrooms, removed from grade 7 classrooms, and reviewed for use in grade 8 – 10 classrooms. The book is listed in CPS’s 2013-14 Literacy Content Framework only for grade 11 students, which likely means it was not approved for use in grade 8 – 10 classrooms.

As Chicago students themselves pointed out, the few panels in Persepolis depicting torture techniques that were used on Iranian dissidents are no more graphic than images encountered while studying other true events such as the Holocaust or slavery. Moreover, many of these same students are exposed to real-life violence daily in their own neighborhoods, so the official CPS justification for the restriction of a modern classic in the nation’s third-largest school district remains unconvincing.

Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.