ATHENS, Tenn. -- Growing up in rural eastern Tennessee, James Cockrum hadn't given much thought to the possibility that one day he might find himself speaking about his Jewish heritage in front of a packed school board meeting.
But four days after news broke that the McMinn County school board unanimously voted to remove a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust from the district's curriculum, Cockrum celebrated the birth of his daughter. That life-changing moment left the 25-year-old wrestling with the realities of the community he grew up in.
“My father was of Jewish descent; I'm of Jewish descent. There is nothing more personal to anybody than our heritage,” Cockrum said. “This is very disturbing.”
Cockrum was one of a handful of people who spoke at the meeting to try to persuade the McMinn County School Board to reconsider its decision that sparked international attention, renewing concerns about book bans and the growing threat of antisemitism. After the board quietly removed “Maus" last month, February's meeting was packed with concerned parents, teachers and students who spilled into an overflow room to see how the board would respond to the criticism.
Instead, the board demurred to a lengthy statement issued weeks earlier justifying its determination that “Maus” — a graphic novel in which Jews are portrayed as mice and Nazis as cats in the retelling of the horrific Holocaust experience of the author's parents — was inappropriate for children because of curse words and a depiction of a nude corpse, which was drawn as a cartoon mouse.
Only one board member, Mike Cochran, broached the subject Thursday. Cochran recounted a conversation with a rabbi who had suggested to him that a Holocaust survivor could talk to students as a possible replacement for the removed book.
“I want people to understand that this had nothing to do with the Holocaust on why we took it out,” he said.
On Jan. 10, McMinn school board members called a special meeting to discuss “Maus," only a day before their district's eighth graders were scheduled to begin reading the book. The time crunch gave the discussion a sense of urgency. No recordings of the meeting have been released, but 20 pages of meeting minutes detail a back and forth between board members and school administrators, who defended the text as a vital lesson that brought home the horror of an important moment in history.
The minutes show that none of the board members had read “Maus” and at least one member noted that the typical process for handling complaints over curriculum had been bypassed. Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously to remove the book and directed teachers to find a suitable replacement.
The decision largely went unnoticed until an advocacy group called the Tennessee Holler broadcast the news. The book has since moved to the center of a growing national debate about the teaching of disturbing history, including slavery as well as the Holocaust, prompted by recent pushes to limit children's exposure to certain materials and discussion. In Tennessee, that effort recently expanded to include school libraries, with the state’s Republican governor and others looking for new ways to ramp up scrutiny on what gets placed on shelves.
Those efforts have ignited fierce pushback from people offended by the board's action. In McMinn County, where many were caught off guard by the move, some groups have sought copies of “Maus” and made it available to students through alternate channels. Sales have soared everywhere, making it among the top sellers on Amazon.com. Booksellers have offered to send free copies to students in McMinn County and across Tennessee. Donations have poured in to help purchase copies worldwide.
Author Art Spiegelman has expressed bafflement at the board's decision and seized the moment to foster conversation about censorship.
“It’s certainly about Jews, but it’s not just about Jews,” Spiegelman said earlier this week during a virtual discussion on book bans hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga that more than 10,000 people attended.
“This is about othering and what’s going on now is about controlling ... what kids can look at, what kids can read, what kids can see in a way that makes them less able to think, not more. And it takes the form of the criticisms from this board,” he added.
For Alex Sharp, a librarian who lives in McMinn County, the board's fixation on a handful of swear words misses the broader lessons students should learn while studying the Holocaust and other painful moments in history. It also makes no sense, she said, in an age when students have access to more objectionable material online.
“Yes, it has a few bad words in it, but in my opinion our kids are seeing way worse than that on YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat," she said. "You have to remember they're 13 and 14 years old. They're not small children anymore, they're breaching into adulthood, and we have to talk about these controversial topics with them so they grow up into 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 ever.
“I'm immensely disappointed in the decision to remove material regarding my own heritage and family's history. I'd like to ask generally: What message does this send to our Jewish neighbors?" he said. “Are these stories not there to learn from?”