Parents and teachers in Tennessee oppose removal of “Maus”

THENS, Tenn. (AP) — Growing up in rural East Tennessee, James Cockrum hadn’t given much thought to the possibility that one day he would find himself talking about his Jewish heritage in front of a packed school board meeting.

But four days after news broke that the McMinn County School Board voted unanimously to remove a Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel from the district’s school curriculum, Cockrum celebrated the birth of her girl. This life-changing moment left the 25-year-old struggling with the realities of the community he grew up in.

“My father was of Jewish origin; I am of Jewish origin. There is nothing more personal to anyone than our heritage,” Cockrum said. “It’s very disturbing.”

Cockrum was one of the few people who spoke at the meeting in an attempt to persuade the McMinn County School Board to reconsider its decision which drew international attention, rekindling concerns about book bans and the growing threat of anti-Semitism. After the board quietly retired ‘Maus’ last month, the February meeting was packed with concerned parents, teachers and students who rushed into an overflow room to see how the board would respond to criticism.

Instead, the council objected to a lengthy statement issued weeks earlier justifying its determination that “Maus” – a graphic novel in which Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats in the narrative of the horrific Holocaust experience of the author’s parents – was inappropriate for children because of swear words and a depiction of a naked corpse, which was drawn as a cartoon mouse.

Only one board member, Mike Cochran, broached the subject on Thursday. Cochran recounted a conversation with a Jewish rabbi who suggested to him that a Holocaust survivor could speak to students as a possible replacement for the removed book.

“I want people to understand that this has nothing to do with the Holocaust and why we took it down,” he said.

On Jan. 10, members of the McMinn school board called a special meeting to discuss “Maus,” just one day before eighth-graders in their district were to begin reading the book. The lack of time gave the discussion a sense of urgency. No recording of the meeting has been released, but 20 pages of meeting minutes detail a back-and-forth between board members and school administrators, who championed the text as a vital lesson that brought home the horror of an important moment in history.

James Cockrum speaks before the McMinn County School Board in a packed meeting room, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Athens, Tennessee. (Robin Rudd/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

Minutes show that none of the board members had read “Maus” and at least one member noted that the typical complaints process for the program had been circumvented. Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously to withdraw the book and asked the teachers to find a suitable replacement.

The decision largely went unnoticed until an advocacy group called the Tennessee Holler broke the news. The book has since moved to the center of a growing national debate over the teaching of troubling history, including slavery as well as the Holocaust, sparked by recent pressures to limit children’s exposure to certain documents and discussions. In Tennessee, that effort has recently expanded to school libraries, with the state’s Republican governor and others looking for new ways to step up scrutiny of what’s placed on the shelves.

These efforts sparked a fierce response from those offended by the council’s action. In McMinn County, where many were caught off guard by the move, some groups sought out copies of “Maus” and made it available to students through other channels. Sales skyrocketed everywhere, making it one of the top sellers on Booksellers offered to send free copies to students in McMinn County and Tennessee. Donations poured in to help buy copies around the world.

Author Art Spiegelman expressed bewilderment at the board’s decision and took the opportunity to foster conversation about censorship.

“It’s definitely about the Jews, but it’s not just about the Jews,” Spiegelman said earlier this week during a virtual discussion on book bans hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga at which more than 10,000 people attended.

“It’s about otherness and what’s happening now is controlling… what kids can watch, what kids can read, what kids can see in a way that makes them less able to think, no more. And that comes in the form of criticism of this council,” he added.

For Alex Sharp, a librarian who lives in McMinn County, the council’s fixation on a handful of swear words misses the larger lessons students should learn while studying the Holocaust and other painful moments in history. It also doesn’t make sense, she said, in an age when students have access to more objectionable content online.

“Yes, it has some swear words in it, but in my opinion our kids see a lot worse than that on YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat,” she said. “You have to remember that they are 13 and 14 years old. They are no longer little children, they are entering adulthood and we need to talk about these controversial topics with them so that they become empathetic human beings.

As he spoke at Thursday’s meeting, Cockrum shook his head in disbelief that a book ban had brought him before a school board for the first time.

“I am immensely disappointed with the decision to remove material regarding my own heritage and family history. I would like to ask a general question: what message does this send to our Jewish neighbors?” he said. “Aren’t these stories there to learn?”


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