In Tennessee, the ‘Maus’ Controversy Is the Least of Our Worries

NASHVILLE — Tennessee school boards, you may have heard, have been busy lately striking long-beloved, award-winning classic literature from their social studies and language arts curriculums. The Williamson County School Board recently took a hard look at more than 30 texts, restricting the use of seven and striking one altogether: “Walk Two Moons,” a Newbery Medal-winning, middle-grade book by Sharon Creech that follows the story of a 13-year-old girl whose mother is missing. According to the group Moms for Liberty, who lodged the formal “reconsideration request” that caused the school board to take up the issue, “Walk Two Moons” is inappropriate for fourth-grade readers because it features “stick figures hanging, cursing and miscarriage, hysterectomy/stillborn and screaming during labor.”

Well, may God save all American children from the knowledge that women in labor are apt to scream.

That ridiculous complaint didn’t get much national play last week because the media was still busy decrying the news from McMinn County, where the school board had just voted unanimously to remove “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade social studies curriculum. In “Maus,” the author Art Spiegelman uses a comic-book format to tell the story of his parents, who survived the Nazi camps. According to a statement, the school board voted to remove the book “because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”

Let’s put this vote into context. Being troubled by works of classic literature is widespread across the American South, most often out of concern that a text might make children uncomfortable, and book bans are dramatically increasing. But that concern is not confined to conservative communities or deep red states. Last year, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books List “for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a ‘white savior’ character, and its perception of the Black experience.”

Plenty of pundits have argued that unspoken antisemitism is at the heart of the decision to drop “Maus,” but I’m not so sure. Around here, antisemitism tends to take far more flagrant forms, like swastikas and hate speech and white supremacist violence against synagogues and temples. There’s also the matter of institutional antisemitism, like the law that allowed a state-funded Christian adoption agency deny a child to a fully qualified Jewish couple.

I’m willing to give the McMinn County school board the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are doing only what conservative parents have always done: trying desperately to insulate their children from the modern world without quite understanding how the modern world works. Certainly without noticing that the vast majority of teenagers in McMinn County already carry the modern world around in their pockets — the cussing and the sex and the violence and all of it.

Reading the minutes of the school board meeting about “Maus” turns up only the usual worries that animate deeply conservative communities — concerns about profanity, sexuality, violence and, in “Maus,” a suicide scene. Given the dramatic rise in adolescent suicide attempts during the pandemic, surely any parent can understand that worry. And of course, to argue that a particular book is not appropriate for an eighth-grade curriculum just isn’t the same thing as banning the book outright.

It’s what the teenagers of McMinn County do not carry in their pockets that explains why “Maus” is a necessary text for classroom discussion. They don’t carry an understanding of what the Nazis did to the Jews so recently that there are still survivors sharing their memories. They don’t carry an understanding of the emotional fallout of that history, or the persecution of Jews that continues to this day. Most of all, what the teenagers of McMinn County do not carry in their pockets is a gifted teacher who can help them recognize the atrocities that human beings are capable of without succumbing to existential despair themselves.

History teaches us that banning books has always been futile. The first translation of the New Testament published in English was banned in England, its translator executed for heresy. Anybody care to guess how many English-language Bibles now exist in the world?

The present is showing us how futile it still is. Shortly after The Tennessee Holler broke the news, “Maus” hit the stratosphere, becoming a No. 1 Amazon best seller 36 years after it first appeared in book form. Shortly thereafter it was sold out at Amazon and nearly everywhere else. Tennessee bookstores — with the help of donations from readers — stormed into action. Nirvana Comics in Knoxville offered to send a copy of “Maus” to any student who requested one. Fairy tales & More, a children’s bookstore in Nashville, is partnering with local schools to do the same. The Bookshop in East Nashville will donate 10 percent of its retail sales on Feb. 13 to the Freedom to Read Foundation, “to help get these books into the hands of those who need them,” said store owner Joelle Herr.

Hearing the news that “Walk Two Moons” had been dropped from the curriculum in Williamson County, the children’s novelist Katherine Applegate emailed Parnassus Books and ordered 100 copies for the staff to give away at their discretion. Later that day, her husband, the young-adult novelist Michael Grant, heard the news about “Maus” and contacted the store with the same instructions and a 100-copy order of his own. “With the dark clouds of book banning looming, they brightened all our day,” store manager Andy Brennan told me in an email.

As Whitney Kimball Coe, director of National Programs at the Center for Rural Strategies, pointed out in The Daily Yonder, many people in McMinn County itself are outraged by their school board’s decision, and are trying to counter it with library donations and community discussions about antisemitism and even plans to run for the school board. And, as Ms. Coe points out, national news stories that paint all rural Tennesseans as illiterate anti-Semites don’t help those efforts.

“If you must write about us, at least give a damn about us,” she writes. “Outrage is the quick and easy response if you’re not committed to the sum of us; that is, if you’re only committed to signaling which side you’re on and don’t really care about communities outside your bubble.”

Still, it is possible to trust that the parents in McMinn County are acting in what they believe is the best interest of their children, and also to recognize that these parents are being manipulated by toxic and dangerous political forces operating at the state and national levels. Here in Tennessee, book bans are just a small but highly visible part of a much larger effort to privatize public schools and turn them into conservative propaganda centers. This crusade is playing out in ways that transcend local school board decisions, and in fact are designed to wrest control away from them altogether.

I don’t mean simply the law, passed last year, that limits how racism is taught in public schools across the state. I’m talking about an array of bills being debated in the Tennessee General Assembly right now. One would purge books considered “obscene or harmful to minors” from school libraries across the state. Another would ban teaching materials that “promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” Yet another would prevent school districts from receiving state funding for undocumented students.

Most of all I’m talking about Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement, in his State of the State address last week, that he has approached Hillsdale College, a Christian institution in Michigan, to open 50 charter schools in Tennessee — Mr. Lee reportedly requested 100 — that would follow a curriculum designed to make kids “informed patriots.” Not informed citizens; informed patriots, as conservative Christians define that polarizing term.

“What strikes me as the unusual takeaway is that the governor is intentionally wheeling the state into this very ideologically loaded and electorally loaded civics education,” said Adam Laats, the author of “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the American Faith in Higher Education,” in an interview with The Tennessean.

That’s not surprising at all if you know anything about the Tennessee Republican Party, which is in lock step with right-wing oligarchs funding their campaigns. The fact that so many of these challenged books have been in the literary canon for decades is a dead giveaway that the new bans are a response to contemporary political forces whose true motivation has nothing to do with books. What they really want is to destroy public education. As Christopher Leonard, the author of “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America,” notes in an interview with Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider for the “Have You Heard” podcast: “The ultimate goal is to dismantle the public education system entirely and replace it with a privately run education system.” (Read a transcript of the full interview here.)

The real tragedy in Tennessee, and across the red states, is this existential threat to public education, which is the very foundation of a functioning democracy. And that’s where our outrage should lie — not at school boards whose decisions are formed by parental concerns that simply differ from our own.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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