The day is Monday, Jan. 10. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is just a couple of weeks away. The McMinn County School Board in eastern Tennessee is wrapping up a special meeting. The only item on the agenda? “Discussion of Eighth Grade ELA Curriculum.” The verdict? A unanimous decision to ban “Maus” from the district’s eighth grade classrooms.
“Maus” is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman which depicts his father’s experiences as a Polish Holocaust survivor. In 2016, celebrating the novel’s thirtieth anniversary, “master of the comic art form” Chris Ware deemed “Maus” the “greatest graphic novel ever written.” Despite its status as the only graphic novel to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, “Maus” was banned by the district because it contains nudity and curse words.
At the beginning of the meeting, County Director of Schools Lee Parkinson explained that in consultation with an attorney, he had already decided to redact the book’s use of profanity, as well as an objectionable line drawing of a woman. However, members of the board had additional concerns.
One board member who loudly voiced his opposition to the book was Tony Allman. Allman took issue with both the “vulgar and inappropriate behavior” shown in “Maus” and the use of objectionable language.
“Being in the schools, educators and stuff, we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff,” said Allman. “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.”
It is difficult to understand how someone who considers himself an “educator and stuff,” can equate teaching students about the Holocaust with promoting its atrocities. The essential need for young people to learn about the Holocaust, however disturbing, calls to mind the adage, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.”
Allman went on to criticize the graphic novel’s inappropriate language and nudity:
“It’s like when you’re watching TV and a cuss word or nude scene comes on,” he said. “It would be the same movie without it. Well, this would be the same book without it.”
In fact, it would not. The county’s Pre-K to Eighth Grade Supervisor Melasawn Knight argued against Allman:
“People did hang from trees, people did commit suicide, and people were killed. Over six million were murdered,” said Knight. “I think the author is portraying that because it is a true story about his father. He is trying to portray that the best he can… maybe to help people who haven’t been in that aspect in time to actually relate to the horrors of it.”
I read “Maus” in school. Personally, I struggled with its core metaphor of Jews as frightened mice and Nazis as menacing cats. People of different religions, ethnicities, and nationalities are not different species. You don’t fault a cat for killing a mouse; it is acting on centuries of evolutionary instinct. The horror of the Holocaust lies in the fact that human beings brutalized other human beings, and neighbors turned on their neighbors, condemning adults and children alike to their deaths. But you don’t have to like something to defend it.
Antisemitism is on the rise in the United States and throughout the world. FBI statistics revealed that in 2020, 58% of all religiously motivated hate crimes committed in the U.S. targeted the Jewish community. “Maus” is an important book, the Holocaust is an important topic, and a graphic novel has the potential to be a uniquely suitable format for teaching 13- and 14-year-olds about such sensitive yet crucial subject matter.
The dangers of censorship are, of course, not limited to the Holocaust. For instance, individuals in Cheyenne, Wyoming recently lobbied for criminal charges to be brought against librarians for making books about sexuality and sexual orientation available to young readers. Unsurprisingly, Wyoming is currently ranked the second least welcoming state in the nation for BGLTQ residents.
Similarly, a bill was introduced in the Oklahoma State Senate at the end of last year banning public school libraries from “having or promoting books that address the study of sex, sexual preferences, [and] sexual activity.” The bill would allow parents to individually report books and seek monetary damages of at least $10,000 per day if the book in question is not removed. Oklahoma has the fourth highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country. It is in the exact places where information is needed that efforts are underway to ensure it is intentionally withheld.
A nationwide survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z was released by the Claims Conference in 2020. In Tennessee, home to McMinn County, 52% of its respondents were unable to name a single one of the more than 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos once littered across Europe. 44% did not know what Auschwitz was, 66% did not know that over 6 million Jews were murdered, and 16% believed Jews caused the Holocaust. These results demonstrate the critical need for Holocaust education.
Encouragingly, 78% of the young Tennesseeans surveyed “believe it is important to continue teaching about the Holocaust, in part so that it doesn’t happen again” — a higher percentage than in California. Kids across the country want to be educated, making it all the more infuriating that there are adults working so hard to prevent them from becoming so.
In a hopeful turn of events, the national press arising from the board’s decision has brought renewed attention to the “Maus” series. Small businesses from across the country have offered free copies of the book to students in the McMinn area. Within just three days of the first reports of the ban, “The Complete Maus” had climbed to #4 on the Amazon bestseller list. As I write this piece, it sits at #2. One tweet brilliantly captures the ban’s unintended consequences:
“I'd never heard of #Maus before, but I just bought it... Thanks, Tennessee school board, and enjoy watching sales skyrocket for every book you ban.”
—Staff Writer Kathryn B. Klein can be reached at email@example.com.
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