Archive for December, 2015

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Here’s some news I’ve been itching to share: Oxford University Press will publish my next book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. Also, this coming Monday, I will be turning in (to Oxford) the complete manuscript of the book. Though it’s too early to confirm a publication date, I’m hoping it will be out by late 2016.

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hatNo, the entire book is not about the Cat in the Hat, though Seuss’s famous feline features prominently in one chapter. The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children’s books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. The book takes its title from the Seuss chapter (which looks at, among other things, the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat) because several of his works illustrate how racism hides openly — indeed, thrives — in popular culture for young people. Since the hidden racism of children’s literature is my central theme, a Cat-in-the-Hat riff on Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? became the title.

Here’s my opening paragraph:

        Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, we have a new civil rights crusade — the Black Lives Matter movement, inspired by the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and galvanized by the 2014 Ferguson protests. Fifty years after Nancy Larrick’s famous “All-White World of Children’s Books” article (1965) asked where were the people of color in literature for young readers, the We Need Diverse Books campaign is asking the same questions. These two phenomena are related. America is again entering a period of civil rights activism because racism is resilient, sneaky, and endlessly adaptable. In other words, racism endures because racism is structural: it’s embedded in culture, and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides — and the best place to oppose it — is books for young people.

As the Publishers Weekly blurb says, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? is indeed an “attempt… to do for children’s books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system.”

"Nel Walks ‘Cat’ to OUP" (Publishers Weekly)

I realize that this is a tall order: Michelle Alexander’s book is both powerful and beautifully written. But this is indeed my aim. I want not just to get more people thinking about racism’s resilience in children’s literature. I want people to act. I want not merely to recognize the dire need for more children’s and young adult books that better represent the experiences of non-White people. I want people to join the movement for diverse books. So, rather than just conclude, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? ends with a call to action — “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature.”

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)Finishing this book (on top of teaching, writing other things, grading, editing, and everything else) is one reason this blog has recently been a little quieter than usual. As regular or even irregular readers of Nine Kinds of Pie have likely already guessed, fragments of this work-in-progress have appeared here. My earliest (and admittedly flawed) thinking on what developed into Chapter Two started as “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?” Parts of an autobiographical post appear in the introduction. Indeed, I gave an earlier, article version of the title chapter its own blog post. Scattered here and there across the blog are glimpses of me thinking about racism in children’s literature. Many of these pieces will vanish when the blog does, but others — almost always in a significantly revised form — find their way into the book.

So, a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I’ve presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I’ve learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book’s Acknowledgments!) I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.

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Guns vs. Schools

No guns (sign)The National Rifle Association is working to force guns into lecture halls, libraries, offices, dormitories, and stadiums. Their efforts to weaponize college campuses are succeeding.

At the time of the Virginia Tech massacre (32 people killed, 2007), only one state university system (Utah) required colleges and universities to allow guns on campus.  Following the mass slaughter at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University (5 people killed, 2008), you might think that the NRA would have begun backing sensible gun regulation. Instead, the NRA proposed a bill requiring colleges and universities to have guns on campus. Thanks to the NRA’s support and ALEC’s advocacy, there are now 8 states that have adopted a version of this bill, allowing guns on campus: 2 of those for concealed-carry permit holders (Colorado, Utah), and 6 guns in some circumstances (Idaho, Minn., Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Wisconsin). As of July 1, 2017, Kansas will join these states.

Since I teach at a state university in Kansas, and since I rather enjoy being alive, I hope that our state legislature will repeal its so-called “Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act” or that the Kansas Board of Regents will grant state universities an exemption. As of right now, I do not see conclusive evidence that either will happen. That’s one reason I joined 39 other Kansas State University Distinguished Professors in calling for a change in state gun policy.  As our letter says,

There is no evidence that increased gun presence has decreased death or injury by guns on campuses. Whether on campuses or elsewhere, private citizens have had no appreciable success in preventing deaths by intentional shooters, accidental shooters, or suicidal individuals. Beyond the boundaries of universities, the evidence is that the presence of guns in homes increases the likelihood of death or injury by gunshot. We believe our community is safest without guns in our midst, except in the hands of on-duty law enforcement officials.

And:

We are dedicated teachers, mentors, researchers, and colleagues. We believe that the unrestricted presence of guns in our classrooms, offices, lecture halls and other spaces will make us and our students feel less safe. It will compromise the open door policy many of us maintain, in which students and others are free to drop by our offices to consult or converse. It will make students less open to working together with others whom they may not know well, and will adversely affect their educational experience. We believe that by compromising the safety of our community members, sanctioning guns on campus goes against the mission of the university.

We are not the only educators opposing state legislatures’ attempts to endanger the lives of students, faculty, and staff. I’ve been encouraged to see other organizations and individuals speaking out against the false notion — promoted by the NRA and their legislators — that making it possible for more people to kill other people somehow magically increases the safety of all people.

In its statement opposing “campus carry” laws, the American Association of University Professors says, “State legislative bodies must refrain from interfering with decisions that are properly the responsibility of the academic community.” 29 scholarly societies (including the American Studies Association) issued their own statement against the incursion of guns on campus, saying that Texas’ “Campus Carry law and similar laws in other states introduce serious safety threats on college campuses with a resulting harmful effect on students and professors.”

Will state legislatures actually listen to the people who work in the field of education?  Or will they instead flood campuses with guns, increasing the likelihood that students, teachers, and staff will get added to the next sad, inevitable list of the dead?  Also, if bringing guns into the workplace is such a great idea, then why don’t legislatures allow guns in their workplaces?  (The Kansas legislature, for example, grants itself an exemption from its law.)

As of the middle of October 2015, there had been 25 shootings on American college campuses this year, resulting in 23 dead and 25 injured. These include mass shootings, accidental shootings, and murder-suicides. (Suicide is a leading cause of death for college-aged people and guns are used in the majority of these deaths.) I haven’t checked the statistics as of today (December 2nd), but I know there have been others since mid-October and fully expect there to be more before the end of the year.

Here’s hoping that I’m wrong.

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