Last week, I talked about the controversial removal of “Maus” from the middle school curriculum in McMinn County, a decision made by the school board and not by the teachers (the book is approved for 8th grade by the state of Tennessee, by the way). Ostensibly, the board’s concern was a handful of swear words (despite it being brought to their attention that some other books they teach, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” have far more) and a picture of a named female mouse. I looked through my copy of the graphic novel twice and couldn’t find this image; I learned that it was actually a tiny image in the background of a panel portraying Jews being herded into the showers to be gassed. Several board members also complained that the story was too disturbing for 13-year-olds.
My uncle (by marriage), Edgar Lebenhart, was a Jewish Czech immigrant and a Holocaust refugee. He and two of his brothers escaped their homeland when the Nazis took over, and virtually the entirety of their immediate and extended family died in concentration camps. Although he died back in 1978, some of you may remember him - he owned the shirt factories Path and EL Apparel. As a child, I met both his brothers and their wives, one of whom was an Auschwitz survivor. I was curious about the number tattooed on her wrist, and my uncle explained the Holocaust to me - I was 8 - and I sought out books to learn more about it. I remember, at age 11, reading a Captain America comic book about an elderly woman who was an Auschwitz survivor and thinking how much she looked like the woman I had met. My point is, I was certainly able to handle this kind of information by the time I was 13. Where language is concerned, there is nothing in “Maus” that I did not hear every day within five minutes of getting on the school bus. It is imperative that kids learn about this stuff - and 13 is not too young - and in the context of just how terrible it really was, or else it will be forgotten (as it already is by many young people, as I pointed out last time).
But there’s more going on than that. Word of the “Maus” banning came scarcely more than a week after news that a state-sponsored Tennessee adoption agency, under Gov. Lee’s “religious freedom” law, had denied a family a child because they were Jewish. It came at the same time as news of hostages being taken in a synagogue, in Texas… just three years after the horrible synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh… which was only one year after white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia (where they killed one counter-protester), chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us” and “Blood and Soil” (which was a Nazi catchphrase.) In-between, there have been countless incidents of synagogue vandalism and assaults on Jewish people. Heck, just the other day, a dozen protesting Nazis in Florida beat up a Jewish bystander whose grandfather had survived the Holocaust. After decades of being done mostly in subtle ways, suddenly anti-Semitic prejudice is becoming open and violent. Similarly, violence or antagonism toward other minorities have increased dramatically.
All this would seem to indicate that education about the Holocaust, slavery, Jim Crow, and other such topics is becoming more vital than ever for young people. Yet, at the same time, more and more conservative politicians - egged on by their base, who, in turn, are egged on by reactionaries in the conservative media - are passing laws making it harder to teach such topics because it might make white people feel uncomfortable or guilty. It doesn’t take a genius to see the potential results. Maybe that McMinn board was influenced by such thinking, and maybe it wasn’t. But, considering all the books they DID NOT ban, it certainly doesn’t make them - or Tennessee - look good.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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