What to do with Dr. Seuss?

The objects of your nostalgic longing may disappoint you, if you are willing to look at them openly and honestly.  If you read, create, or write about children’s literature, today — the 114th birthday of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) — would be a good time to admit this to yourself.  OK, the time for such admission is really long overdue, but do not be too hard on yourself. The power of cultural inertia is hard to resist.

That said, do resist. Make the attempt. As Seuss himself wrote in a different context, “face up to your problems / whatever they are.”

Read Across America: An NEA ProjectThis particular problem is one to tackle today because Seuss’s work contains both much to admire and much to oppose. Yet, because of his status, people are much more comfortable admiring than looking critically at his work. In the U.S., he is revered as a patron saint of children’s literacy, and children’s literature. In 1997, the National Education Association adopted his birthday as a day to celebrate “Read Across America Day.” It still uses his Cat in the Hat as its mascot, even though — starting this year — it’s shifting its focus to diverse books.

I am partly to blame for this shift.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)In a report that helped inspire this change, Katie Ishizuka-Stephens cites the essay that became the title chapter of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black? As I point out, Seuss’s Cat is racially complicated. He’s partially inspired by blackface minstrelsy, African American elevator operator Annie Williams (who wore white gloves and a secret smile), and Krazy Kat (the black, ambiguously gendered creation of bi-racial cartoonist George Herriman).

I’m happy that Ishizuka-Stephens’s report has persuaded the NEA to shift their “Read Across America Day” focus to diverse books. Half of U.S. school-age children are nonwhite. But of children’s books published in 2016, only 22 percent of children’s books published featured nonwhite children, and only 13 percent were by nonwhite creators. Celebrating stories in which our multicultural young people can see themselves is a better choice than celebrating Seuss.

Which is not to say that Seuss must be thrown out of our classrooms — though that is of course an option. It is, rather, to suggest that we consider which Seuss we use, and how we use it.

At left: Dr. Seuss, from “Four Places Not to Hide While Growing Your Beard” (Life, 15 Nov. 1929). At right: Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957).

Racial caricature in Seuss’s work can help people understand how racism works. Seuss did both racist work and anti-racist work, often at the same time. In the 1940s, he created political cartoons, some of which dehumanized people of Japanese descent, and others of which were critical of both anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans. In the 1950s, Seuss published Horton Hears a Who!, hailed by one reviewer as “a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights”; wrote his first version of The Sneetches, an anti-racist fable; and published an essay that critiques racist humor. During that same period, he recycled racist caricature in his books.  In If I Ran the Zoo, protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to “the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and to the “African Island of Yerka” where he meets two stereotypically rendered Black men.

That Seuss is doing both racist anti-racist work at the same time can be confusing because many of us see racism as an “either/or”: people are either racist or not racist. Indeed, that’s how Seuss himself understood racism. In a June 1942 cartoon titled “What This Country Needs is a Good Mental Insecticide,” he draws a long line of men waiting to get inoculated against the “racial prejudice bug.” The insecticide goes in one ear, and the racist bug tumbles out the other.  I wish we could fumigate racism from our minds, and applaud Seuss’s optimism. Unfortunately, racism is not a bug. It’s a feature. Racism is not aberrant. It’s ordinary. It’s embedded in institutions and in culture — such as the cartoons and books of Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss, "What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide" (PM, 10 June 1942)

It’s upsetting to learn that a beloved children’s author used racist caricature. So, many people — especially White people — seek explanations and offer excuses. In response to recent criticism, his grand-nephew Ted Owens has said of Seuss: “I know one thing for sure — I never saw one ounce of racism in anything he said, or how he lived his life, or what his stories were about.” Mr. Owens’ claim relies on perception and intent. But racism does not require either. People can perpetuate racism without intending to. I don’t think Seuss intended to. Because he was unaware of the degree to which his visual imagination was steeped in caricature, he recycled racist stereotypes even as he was also writing anti-racist parables. Dr. Seuss was the “woke” White guy who isn’t as woke as he thinks he is.

Robin Bernstein, page 1 from "Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde's Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children"“Now, wait just a minute,” some may object. “Seuss was a man of his time. We should not impose contemporary standards on him or his work. People thought differently then.” But that is a gross oversimplification. All people in any given historical moment do not think about race in precisely the same way. As Robin Bernstein has shown in her work on nineteenth-century anti-racism, the range of available racial beliefs remains constant over time, but the distribution of those beliefs change. In the past and in the present, both extraordinary and perfectly ordinary people have opposed White supremacy. Similarly, both remarkable and unremarkable people have supported White supremacy. To claim that people 60 years ago were racist but people now are enlightened both naturalizes past racism as inevitable and implies that social change is a natural, ongoing march towards a brighter, fairer future. Yet, as we are reminded daily, our current president and his party are actively working against precisely such a future. Progress moves in fits and starts, makes gains and endures setbacks, and always requires people committed to making a positive difference.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)Seuss can be part of this positive difference. His more progressive books — The Lorax (1971) or The Butter Battle Book (1984), to name two examples — might teach children about the need to care for the environment or to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Horton Hears a Who! could teach them to stand up for those who are targeted by bigots: the Whos’ size is an arbitrary mark of difference that could represent any such visible sign of human variance. As for the books featuring racist caricature, one option is to remove them from the curriculum. Another is to read them critically. With the guidance of a thoughtful educator, Seuss’s racist caricature can help young people understand that racism is not anomalous. It permeates the culture. Seeing this caricature can also let them know that it’s OK to be angry at art — that anger can in fact be a healthy response to work that demeans you.

We might also follow Roxane Gay’s advice. As she writes, “There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.” Gay is writing in the context of the current #MeToo movement, suggesting that we discard work built on the dehumanization of others. We could follow her advice by pushing Seuss aside and instead celebrating diverse books — doing what the NEA is doing in its program even if it (curiously) retains the Cat in the Hat as its mascot.  Ishizuka-Stephens has assembled a great collection of  “21 Books for an Inclusive Read Across America Day.”  That’s an excellent place to start.

Wrapping yourself in an unreflective nostalgia for the art you grew up with may comfort you, but if that art denigrates women, or caricatures people of color, or otherwise harms minoritized communities, then you bear responsibility for the pain that this art inflicts. I realize this is a hard truth to face and that some who read this will — instead of facing themselves and acknowledging their responsibility — attack the messenger. Some may indulge in projection, locating in the messenger those faults that they refuse to admit in themselves. Others will find different strategies of denial, displacement, or dismissal. In so doing, they will continue to be part of the problem.

Boym, The Future of NostalgiaFor those who prefer to be part of the solution, know that you need not abandon nostalgia. It’s OK to be nostalgic, as long as that nostalgia is what Svetlana Boym called “reflective nostalgia.” It “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt” (xviii).  As Boym wrote, reflective nostalgia reminds us that “longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection” (The Future of  Nostalgia 49-50).

So. Reflect. Dwell on those ambivalences. Develop your capacity to reflect.  Activate your compassion.

And buy diverse books. Teach diverse books. Read diverse books.


Posts related to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, including glimpses of the work in progress:


Some previous posts on Seuss

4 Comments »

  1. Public Librarian Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

    Curious to know your thoughts on the role that public libraries should play in this discussion. These books (and the ones mentioned in your book) are much beloved by a large majority of our community, not to mention we aren’t big on censorship of any kind, but these titles are sometimes hurtful, inaccurate, and/or offensive to an often marginalized minority of our community.

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

    Great question. Chapter 2 of Was the Cat in the Hat Black? explores the question of what to do with racist classics, but does not directly answer the question “What role should libraries play?”

    I think the books should circulate for the reasons outlined in the chapter: whitewashing the past (by removing such books) does not help us understand the present, when taught in an appropriate context racist classics can be pedagogically useful (teaching children that it’s OK to be angry at a book, where to direct their anger, how to respond to racism, etc.), and so on.

    But… I also think the library has a responsibility to label the books so that patrons know. We don’t want someone to stumble into a racist classic, unaware of what they’re about to see. It’s one thing to choose to confront racism in a book, and another to open a book and be assaulted by racist caricature. That can further marginalize the already marginalized and, for any reader, can transmit racist ideas.

    A library also might wish to provide context for the works in question — or recommend books to place in dialogue with the works in question. So, for example, you might place Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series in conversation with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Indeed, could you use the library catalogue to make these recommendations? It wouldn’t need to be books that specifically respond to other books, but simply “For an opposing point of view, see….” or “For a contrasting perspective, see….” Create the opportunity for people to learn: they might not take you up on the invitation. But some will.

    As I wrote the last paragraph, I was also thinking “What would a label look like?” and have provisionally arrived at “?” (a question mark) for “questionable content.” I don’t know if that’s the best symbol. It may not be. I arrived at it because stigmatizing the book with a warning label might make it more attractive to a certain group of readers, and because there are degrees of offensiveness — if we’re going to use the same symbol to note books that are merely questionable to books that are outright racist (or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, etc.), then perhaps the symbol grants some degree of latitude by not being too censorious. We really need to consult a graphic designer here.

    Another possibility is to follow the lead of the MPAA’s film-labeling system, and identify the specific content to which readers might object. My general sense is that this approach could meet more resistance than the “?” approach. (Huckleberry Finn is super racist, but we’ve all been taught that it’s this anti-racist classic. I expect lots of people would object to an “R” for “racism” label on a book that uses the n-word 219 times — many of those times from the supposedly anti-racist titular character.)

    Related thought: ideally, ALA would adopt a labeling standard that libraries could use. Then, over time, that standard becomes widely legible. As noted above, I realize that such efforts would meet with resistance — though I don’t know how entrenched that resistance would be. But some sort of labeling system, identifying the problem, would I think be helpful. I realize, of course, that any labeling system is going to be controversial. And I know that this needs to be thought through with greater nuance than I am doing here (live! unedited!) on this response to your query.

    But I think providing context (a label, other books that offer a more informed/critical perspective) is the most responsible way to keep the books available.

    The key question — in just about any situation — is how do we foster the conditions for human flourishing? Designing a library that recognizes structures of privilege and oppression would seem a step in that direction.

  3. Public Librarian Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 3:43 pm

    “But I think providing context (a label, other books that offer a more informed/critical perspective) is the most responsible way to keep the books available”

    This is an interesting idea, but does prompt many more questions. Who determines which books get labels? Is it only children’s books? Will this prompt other requests for labels (language warnings, religion warnings, sexuality warnings, etc.) While I think most of us can differentiate between racism and a set of beliefs, an upset patron often cannot. I’m not familiar with any public library that has put warning labels (for lack of a better word – which, I appreciate the distinction in this very wording you were trying to make in your comment) on books and worry about the precedent this sets.

    “The key question — in just about any situation — is how do we foster the conditions for human flourishing? Designing a library that recognizes structures of privilege and oppression would seem a step in that direction.”

    Indeed! Let’s get on that!

  4. Philip Nel Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

    Excellent points! The short answer is that Americans (and all people) need to recognize that oppression is structural, and not merely personal; also, feeling “oppressed” by a book (or film, etc.) sympathetic to a minoritzed community is not the same as actually being oppressed. How can we teach people the difference? I think this begins with some basic media literacy — which is something libraries and schools could provide.

    Because yes, there are those who indulge in — and broadcast — paranoid fantasies about “the gay agenda” or make unfounded claims about Black Lives Matter being terrorists. Since there’s an entire media industry (Fox, Sinclair Broadcasting, Breitbart, etc.) that profits from peddling this propaganda, many believe these lies. I’m not sure what we, personally, can do to address business model that preys on the gullible.

    But I do think that some of the gullible are also educable. And I do know that there are facts. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch tracks hate groups. The ACLU tracks challenges to LGBTQ rights, immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, racial justice, and others. Real oppression is documented. Fake oppression may be well-publicized, but lacks evidence.

    For instance, I know that there are many published allegations of Christians being an oppressed group in the US, but those allegations lack a factual basis. I am sure there are individual examples of someone taking offense and even of particular individuals who harbor a bias against Christians. But that’s not structural. And if it isn’t structural, then — for the purposes of labeling books — it doesn’t count.

    So, yes, “offense” is transideological: people of all political persuasions can be offended for a host of reasons. But there’s a difference between being offended and being oppressed. I understand that anti-gay bigots are offended by … And Tango Makes Three — and, I suspect, by A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Seeing gay penguins and gay rabbits being treated equally and fairly would offend hateful people. But these books do not contribute to the oppression of those hateful people.

    I realize that arguing with a bigoted patron over his/her bigotry is exhausting. I know that the hatred of the self-righteous can be enduring and strong. I realize, also, that many such people have legitimate grievances but are directing their anger at the wrong target.

    That said, if a library wishes to foster better conditions for human flourishing, it will need to take a stand — a public stand — against structural oppression. It will need to call out the b.s. of its hateful and ignorant patrons. That will be difficult. The library may face political opposition. Elected officials may threaten the library’s funding. So, should a library take this route, it will need to be both decisive and tactical. It will need to strategize against the opposition. It may even want to start building a “war chest” to push back against anticipated opposition.

    Change is not easy. Progress is not guaranteed.

    But struggle is dependable: it will always be there. And we can choose to join it.

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