Archive for Robin Bernstein

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

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Resolutions for a New Academic Year: A survival guide for higher education in perilous times (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Chronicle of Higher Education (logo)Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education today, I have a piece on “Resolutions for a New Academic Year: A survival guide for higher education in perilous times.” Here’s one of those resolutions:

Teach students to use language well. We can help them to be wary of lazy euphemism — not just because it is bad writing (though it often is), but because its bland familiarity can anaesthetize the attention. As George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” observes: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
The president and his staff spend their days wresting words from their meanings. Amplified by repetition and news coverage, their linguistic nihilism infects our usage, and compromises our collective ability to make sense of the world. So encourage students to discard “alt-right,” “climate skeptic,” and “alternative facts,” and instead, say “white supremacist,” “anti-science,” and “lies.” Help them to resist the slippery idiom of propaganda.

The rest is over at The Chronicle.  Thanks to Robin Bernstein for putting the editor from The Chronicle in touch with me, and to that editor (is it appropriate to name her here?) for publishing this.

She — the editor — asked me to write something on “A column of suggestions for how professors (rookies and senior ones) can get the year off to a good start. Kind of a New Academic Year’s Resolutions.” I said sure! And then jotted notes, and more notes, … and wrote a half-dozen incomplete (failed) drafts. I kept getting stuck because offering the usual beginning-of-term advice felt reckless and irresponsible. It felt like the privileged giving advice to the privileged. In any case, there are lots of columns on the challenges of managing our various and proliferating obligations, or setting writing goals, and related professional predicaments.

Indeed, Robin curates an excellent page of advice. (Her own columns are also full of wisdom. I highly recommend them!)

So, instead, I wrote a piece inviting educators to consider how they might shine a light through the fog of lies that envelops us, nurture the capacity for critical thinking, and help others resist the allure of fascist blowhards. Of course, the younger generation did not vote for the tiny-fingered bloviator. But they will live amidst the damage he and his quislings inflict for many more years than their teachers will.

We should really restore that word — quisling — to contemporary discourse. It comes from Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), the Norwegian Prime Minister (1942-1945) who collaborated with the Nazis, and thus can refer to any short-sighted people who collude with those who do their fellow citizens harm. For instance, most (though not all) of the Republican Party have been happy to betray their country and its citizens. Sure, here and there, they’ll offer a few words of criticism. But will most back up their words with actions?  The majority still fantasize about a tax policy that will increase the misery of those in need, and so put their qualms aside to work with the grifter-in-chief. For instance, right now, will they join Democrats & support DACA legislation for immigrants who — though they lack citizenship — have known no other home than the US? Or will they stand by, while America’s fascist clown deports 800,000 hard-working members of their community? Most Republicans’ behavior thus far does not inspire me to hope. (But I would love to be proven wrong on this!)

Brian Herrera: "I'm With Us" (301 of 304): "Hope requires" — Philip Nel

By design, the administration’s cruelty harms minoritized communities the most. (This is what happens when a white supremacist becomes president.) So, in offering advice, I tried to take into account the fact that, for some of us, merely surviving the regime will be not only enough but truly miraculous. For some, simply continuing to be is itself a form of resistance. And I also understand that critical pedagogy animates some of us more than others. We all move through the world, bearing different and often unseen burdens. What works for one may not work for all.

But those of us who care about democracy and human rights are all in this together. We need to support each other, and — in whatever way we can — ignite beacons of hope amidst the gathering darkness.

A well-educated public is less likely to admire demagogues. So, we educators have our work cut out for us — important, necessary work. And we might locate at least some of our hope in that endeavor.

Related writing (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

Image from Brian Herrera‘s “I’m With Us” series added 7 Sept. 2017.

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Advice for Aspiring Academics (in Inside Higher Ed)

Inside Higher Ed logoAttention, graduate students, adjuncts with tenure-track aspirations, and recent tenure-track hires*!

  • Always be publishing
  • Believe in and doubt merit
  • Do not define success according to academe’s terms

… and 9 other pieces of advice in “Advice for Aspiring Academics,” published in today’s Inside Higher Ed.

Regular readers of this blog may notice that this is the full-length version of a short Twitter essay from April 2014. At that time, I said I’d revise and expand it — well, I finally did!  I should also note that the original series of tweets was itself inspired by a Twitter conversation with Clémentine Beauvais. She’s since left Twitter, but if you’ve an interest in academe or children’s literature, do check out her excellent blogs, available in English and French.

Finally, everyone should peruse Robin Bernstein’s excellent collection of advice for academics.  Lots of wisdom there.

My other Inside Higher Ed essays:

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*aka lecturers in the UK and Australian systems.

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 2: The Golliwog

The second in my “Archive of Childhood” series. Trigger warning: images of a racist doll appear below. I’ve included it because this post is about racism, and I didn’t feel I could talk about the racism without displaying the doll in question.


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)NOTE. A revised and expanded inquiry into this subject forms the Introduction (“Race, Racism, and the Cultures of Childhood”) to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017), pp. 1-30.


I did not call them “stuffed animals.” I called them “fellows,” allegedly because, seeing my stuffed animals lined up along the foot of my bed, my mother remarked, “That’s a funny-looking bunch of fellows you have there.” So, stuffed animals became fellows.

The author, Teddy, and Panda, c. 1972It’s a curiously appropriate term. I was a shy child, and these fellows were my confederates. They were my friends, each with a unique personality. Except for Golly. Nutty Squirrel (who, oddly, was bright red) was bouncy, friendly, slightly unhinged. Gary (a dog whose name was an anagram of his gray color) was friendly, and a little boisterous in a dog-like way. Teddy and Panda were my close friends and confidants. In contrast, Golly was none of the above. To me, Golly’s face was a blank mask, its gender indeterminate, and its humanity doubtful.

That I saw this racist doll as unconnected to race or even human beings specifically is telling. It’s a great example of how racial ideologies can hide in plain sight, but it also offers some insight into what children see or don’t see. As an adult, I look at Golly, and the racial caricature makes me feel queasy; I feel ashamed at having grown up with a racist doll. As a child, I looked at Golly and saw only Golly — a claim that illustrates the efficient invisibility of ideology. The idea that I “saw only Golly” neatly conceals the fact that I was, unawares, absorbing messages about race and power, and, that in its otherness, this doll was affirming my own whiteness as normal. Then, I had no sense that this doll was derived from minstrelsy, or something that I should not be harboring. Golly was just Golly. When I got a second Golly, which (like the first) was a handmade gift from a South African relative, I remember thinking: Oh. Now I have two of my least favorite fellows.

The author and Golly, c. 1972

As these photographs suggest, I had a warmer, more emotionally intimate relationship with Teddy and Panda, but a cooler, distant relationship with Golly. Aged 3, I hold Teddy and Panda close, shyly peering out over their heads. Contrast that full and loving embrace with my casual, almost careless hold on Golly. One hand cannot bring itself to close around his bow-tie; two fingers from the other hand consent to touch his hair. I regularly hugged and cuddled Panda and Teddy. They slept by my side each night. I tolerated the Gollies. If all the fellows were invited to a party, then the Gollies would of course be included. It would have been rude to omit them. But that’s it. They were invited out of obligation, not affection. With their black faces, bright red lips and manic grins, the Gollies lived in internal exile among the better-loved fellows. They were more things than friends.

Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011)Their thingness, however, may explain why I responded as I did. Distinguishing between objects and things, Robin Bernstein writes in Racial Innocence, “An object becomes a thing when it invites people to dance” (73). If, as Bernstein suggests, a doll is a “scriptive thing,” then my Golly prompted certain “meaningful bodily behaviors” (71), revealing a “a script for a performance” (72). This does not mean that all who played with a Golly would interact in precisely the same way, but rather that the doll invites certain kinds of play, and that children can accept, reject, or revise those invitations. For me, my Gollies largely elicited polite indifference. I didn’t play with either Golly much. I never even gave the second Golly a name of its own. Though soft, my Gollies didn’t inspire me to cuddle them. However, my mother (who grew up in 1940s South Africa) remembered that she did cuddle her childhood Golly. As a soft doll, the Golly does script cuddling.

Growing up in Massachusetts in the 1970s, I resisted that script because I found the dolls a bit creepy, even grotesque. On one level, I may have been — unconsciously — responding to the ugliness of the racial caricature. Golly is short for “Golliwog,” whose history dates to Florence Kate Upton’s children’s book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1895). Upton was born in Flushing, New York, but at age 14 — after her father’s death — moved with her mother and sisters back to England. Her parents were English. The character was based on a “blackface minstrel doll” she had played with as a child in the U.S. (Bernstein 159). As Upton would later recall, “Seated upon a flowerpot in the garden, his kindly face was a target for rubber balls… the game being to knock him over backwards. It pains me now to think of those little rag legs flying ignominiously over his head, yet that was a long time ago, and before he had become a personality…. We knew he was ugly!” (Pilgrim).

Florence Kate Upton, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1895)

The book and the dolls were very popular in the U.K., which (I suspect) is how they got to South Africa. In the U.S., the Golliwog is not as widely recognized. As the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia tells us, it’s “the least known of the major anti-black caricatures in the United States” (Pilgrim).

Golliwog (from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)Given the doll’s relative obscurity in the U.S., blaming my cool response to the Gollies entirely on some unconscious awareness of their racist content is far too neat an answer. The Gollies were not only other because they were grotesque; they were also other because they were Black. Growing up in an all-white Massachusetts town, I had no friends or even acquaintances of color. Though there were then public policies promoting desegregation, America in the 1970s was — as it is now — a highly segregated place. I lacked friends of color until high school, a Connecticut prep school that made some effort to attract non-white students. My experience was and is not unusual. The Public Research Institute recently reported that a full 75% of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence” (Ingram).

The Golly is not an anomalous artifact of the South African influence on my childhood. (My parents grew up in South Africa.) It’s not an isolated example of how racist culture crosses borders. It embodies the cultural pervasiveness of racism. A book from my childhood library, Walt Disney’s Story Land (Golden Press, 1974) includes Joel Chandler Harris’s “De Tar Baby,” “Adapted from the Motion Picture ‘Song of the South’” (172), featuring characters talking in “black” dialect. Of books that remain in print today, the Asterix comics, by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1959-1979) and Uderzo solo (1980-2009), feature racial caricatures of most non-white characters: Native Americans in Asterix and the Great Crossing (1975), and Africans in Asterix and Cleopatra (1965). Random House’s Yearling imprint not only keeps Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard series (1980-1998) in print, but in 2010 relaunched them with new cover designs. More subtly, the influence of blackface minstrelsy lingers on in Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and the Cat in the Hat. Racism’s legacy is everywhere, and it’s particularly tenacious in children’s literature and culture.

Walt Disney's Story Land: 55 favorite stories adapted from Walt Disney films (Golden Press, 1974)

When I’ve brought my Gollies into class for discussions of racist children’s culture, I’ve half-jokingly described the experience as “a visit to the island of racist toys.” But they’re not an island. They’re the ocean. PLAYMOBIL SuperSet Native American CampThough now called “Native Americans” instead of “Indians” (as they were in my youth), Playmobil’s depiction of non-white peoples traffics in stereotypes: in its toys, Native Americans all live in tepees and wear headdresses, and the sole “African / African American” family comes with a basketball. Or came with one. Playmobil recently discontinued this family. Very often, even imperfect representations of non-white people can be scarce. The “Black” version of the toy is either hard to find or simply doesn’t exist.

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)None of this is to deny the significant progress in the past 40 years. From Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in The Wiz (1978) to Quvenzhané Wallis in Annie (2014), from Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins, the Great (1975) to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), children’s culture has developed more and better representations people of color. But improvement is not parity. Progress is not the same as equality.

And that’s what whites who deny — or, to put it more kindly, fail to see — the persistence of structural racism need to learn. The petulant New York cops who turn their backs on Mayor de Blasio fail to understand that, just because they may not intend to be racist, the NYPD’s history of murdering unarmed people of color can not be dismissed as a statistical anomaly.

For those who find it far-fetched to fault racism in children’s culture (and popular culture more broadly) for the persistence of racist attitudes, I would argue that these images — especially those we encounter as children — have staying power. As Christopher Myers wrote, such images “linger in our hearts, vast ‘image libraries’ that color our actions and ideas, even if we don’t recognize them on a conscious level. The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects.”

Keats, The Snowy Day (1962): coverWriting those words just after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was found not guilty, Myers added, “I wondered: if the man who killed Trayvon Martin had read The Snowy Day as a kid, would it have been as easy for him to see a seventeen-year-old in a hoodie, pockets full of rainbow candies and sweet tea, as a threat? What might have been different if images of round-headed Peter and his red hood and his snow angels were already dancing in his head?”

That is precisely why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and why we need a wider range of toys, movies, and video games featuring protagonists of color. We need to counter the Gollies, the Uncle Remuses, and all the rest. What we learn as children shapes our world view more profoundly because, when we are small, we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we believe. For this reason, children’s toys, books, and culture are some of the most important influences on who we become — and on what biases we harbor.

Confronting those biases is hard and necessary work, but it’s nowhere near as hard as the psychic toll paid by those who endure the daily experience of racism. Indeed, it’s much easier for those of us not on the receiving end of racism to fail to see it, and to minimize its presence in our own lives. But exercising the privilege of choosing not to see leads to irresponsibility, to micro-aggressions, to unwittingly becoming part of a racist system.

The casual ignorance of well-intentioned people does more to sustain structural inequality than, say, those expressions of racism that get more media coverage — former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his mistress not to bring Black people to the games, or media mogul Rupert Murdoch alleging that all Muslims bear responsibility for the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo.

As Catherine R. Squires writes, “We pretend to our peril that racism is safely in our past” (16). Golly is an atypical feature of Caucasian-American childhoods, but racism is not. It’s in films, playground taunts, dolls, books, relatives’ remarks. It’s everywhere.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Ingram, Christopher. “Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends.” Washington Post 25 Aug. 2014: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/08/25/three-quarters-of-whites-dont-have-any-non-white-friends/>.

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. 1962. New York: Puffin Books, 1976.

Myers, Christopher. “Young Dreamers.” Horn Book 6 Aug. 2013: <http://www.hbook.com/2013/08/opinion/young-dreamers/>

Pilgrim, David. “The Golliwog Caricature.” 2000, rev. 2012. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/golliwog/>. Date of access: 4 Jan. 2014.

Squires, Catherine R. The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York University Press, 2014.

Walt Disney’s Story Land: 55 favorite stories adapted from Walt Disney films. Racine, WI: Golden Press, 1974.


Related links on this site:


I plan to include a much shorter excerpt of this piece in the introduction to my book, currently titled Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature. Indeed, I wrote this personal essay to help me write the introduction. Criticisms, comments, suggestions for improvement and for further reading are all welcome. For that matter, if you’ve any suggestions on how much (if any) of this should be included, I’d welcome opinions there, too.


Image sources: two photos of author and dolls (Philip Nel), Racial Innocence (NYU Press), The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (Lusenberg.com), Golliwog doll (Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia), Walt Disney’s Story Land (Philip Nel), Playmobile (Amazon.com).

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On Reading the Expurgated Huck Finn; or, Why We Should Teach Offensive Novels

NewSouth's Bowdlerized edition of Mark TwainAs you may recall, three years ago NewSouth Books published an edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which editor Alan Gribben replaced the n-word with “slave,” and the in-word (“Injun”) with “Indian.” Many (including yours truly) criticized Gribben’s decision, and most critics focused on Huckleberry Finn. But who actually read his edition? As I write a chapter on Bowdlerized children’s literature, I decided to read Gribben’s expurgated Huck Finn. My central questions were: What’s the effect of Bowdlerizing this novel? How does it change? How doesn’t it change? Does it approach Gribben’s goal of creating a book that “can be enjoyed just as deeply and authentically if readers are not obliged to confront the n-word on so many pages” (12)?

These are my answers. (Trigger warning: the n-word appears multiple times below. I’ve included it because it’s offensive, and I didn’t feel I could talk about the novel’s offensiveness without using the offending term.)


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)NOTE. Pieces of this appear (in revised form) in a far better inquiry into this subject — Chapter 2 (“How to Read Uncomfortably: Racism, Affect, and Classic Children’s Books”) of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017), pp. 67-106.


Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (Norton Critical Edition)1. Reading an expurgated edition heightens one’s awareness of what has been changed. When listening to the radio and I hear a word that has been bleeped, silenced, or (more typically) electronically garbed, the omission stands out more than if it had not been altered. If I know the unexpurgated version of the song, my brain instinctively fills in the missing word; if I don’t know it, then the absent rhyme prompts my brain to produce an uncensored version of the lyric. The same is true with “slave” in the NewSouth Edition of Huck Finn: each time I encounter the word “slave,” I first think “Is that an expurgated n-word?”  I assume that it is, but always verify my assumption by checking my Norton Critical Edition of Huck Finn. In its many omissions, the NewSouth edition actually made me more aware of the 219 instances of the word “nigger” in Huck Finn.

2. Gribben insists that this edition “is emphatically not intended for academic scholars” (16). I take his point, and would not assume that younger readers would be reading (as I was) with a non-Bowdlerized edition on hand. However, racism is the central theme of Huck Finn. Not only is it impossible to create an “authentic” version of the novel without the n-word, but presenting this text to young readers as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn perpetuates structural racism. Using “slave” instead of “nigger” naturalizes the racism in Huck’s caricature of Jim. Retaining the n-word makes us pay closer attention to Huck’s racism: though he is less racist than some of the other characters in the book, our narrator casually slings around the n-word, too. Gribben downplays the profound significance of removing this word: “Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers” (13).

The problem is: the caustic sting is the point. Enduring the repeated offensiveness of the n-word is a core experience of reading Huckleberry Finn. Since I am neither a nineteenth-century Americanist nor a Twain scholar, I take the edition’s back cover at its word when it describes Professor Gribben as a “Twain scholar,” and notes that he “co-founded the Mark Twain Circle of America,” and “compiled Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction.” I wonder, however, if Twain scholars still think of Gribben as a Twain scholar? To claim (as Gribben does) that Huck Finn can be both “authentic” and free of its racial slurs is preposterous.

Alan Gribben3. If I am correct in identifying the pink-faced Gribben on the back cover as white, then the NewSouth edition is also a telling example of how white privilege conceals itself from itself. Gribben tries to dilute Huck’s and Twain’s racism in order to preserve a classic American novel, obscuring the ways in which (as Toni Morrison has argued) the predominantly white American canon depends upon not just blackness but upon racism. Gribben colludes in the partial erasure of racism from American literary history, perpetuating a kind of “racism lite” — what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.” Though Huck, Tom, the King, the Duke, and Uncle Silas all treat Jim as less than fully human because of his race, they never once — in the NewSouth edition — use the n-word when doing so. But changing the word does not change the stereotype. In the NewSouth edition, Jim may be called a slave, but the book still caricatures him as a nigger.

Even when Twain’s novel tries to assert Jim’s humanity, such as the scene in which he remembers his deaf daughter Elizabeth, it still calls him “nigger” and represents him as one. Just paragraphs prior to the Elizabeth scene, Huck hears Jim talking in his sleep about “his wife and his children,” feeling “low and homesick.” He then observes, “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so…. He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was” (125). Changing that line to “He was a might good slave, Jim was” (393) not only softens Huck’s racist condescension towards Jim, but conflates racial category (“nigger”) with job description (“slave”) — and there are moments (in Twain’s novel) when Huck distinguishes between slave and nigger. For example, at the beginning of Huck’s crisis of conscience, he makes the distinction: “Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave” (168). When this passage appears in the NewSouth edition (as it does, unchanged), there’s no way of knowing that Huck is making this lexical distinction between the two terms because NewSouth replaces all instances of the n-word with “slave.”

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884)4. The distinction is important because Twain’s characters suffer from varying degrees of racism. Though he makes liberal use of the n-word, Huck is actually less racist than (for example) his father. On some (though certainly not all) of the occasions Huck uses the n-word, he is reflecting the judgment of the community. During that same crisis-of-conscience scene, he says, “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom” (168). In conveying others’ imagined evaluation of his behavior, he echoes their style of speech: in context, the n-word could be read as Twain’s criticism of those who think that people of color should be enslaved. In contrast, Huck’s father consistently denies the humanity of people of color. Pap’s use of the n-word not only offers some indication of where Huck may have learned to deploy the term so frequently, but allows readers to make a moral distinction between father and son. Pap describes “a free nigger,” a “mulatter, most as white as a white man” who is a “p’fessor in a college and could talk all kinds of languages,” and then rails against the man’s right to vote: “when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again” (27). In changing the word “nigger” to “slave,” NewSouth not only partly obscures where Huck learned his racist language, but also diminishes the full violence of Pap’s hatred.

5. Reading the word “nigger” should make you at least uncomfortable, and at most angry. Since Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is also satirical, a key emotional experience of reading is the collision between anger and humor. On the one hand, the novel has lots of satirical targets — romantic adventure narratives, religion, human gullibility, superstition in general, and (in particular) superstition in “niggers.” Its attempts at humor bump uncomfortably into its racism. The novel invites us to laugh at the superstitions of Nat (the slave who feeds Jim, on Uncle Silas’s plantation), and of Jim himself. Yet, because it presents both characters — especially Nat — as racial caricatures, the jokes aren’t funny. (Well, racists may find them funny, but other people are less likely to laugh.) Other jokes — the mocking of the King and the Duke’s con-artistry, Emmeline Grangerford’s morbid poetry — work much better. The different affective tones make for an unsettling read.

Young people should learn to read uncomfortably, to be able to cope with experiences that upset them. Huck Finn’s mix of comedy and bigotry offers an ideal occasion to do just that. In its attempts to sanitize the novel’s bigotry, Gribben’s NewSouth edition makes it harder to have that conversation.

6. Though his efforts were well-intentioned, Alan Gribben, in his NewSouth edition, attempts to conceal racism’s history and pervasiveness in American culture, while enshrining as a classic one of the books that perpetuates racism — and, in some ways, critiques racism. (I’ve dwelled on the novel’s shortcomings here, but it’s fair to call Twain a racial progressive in nineteenth-century America. Despite and because of that, it’s also fair to call both Twain and the novel racist.)

7. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic American novel and a racist American novel. Indeed, its racism can not be separated from its genius. These twin qualities provide two excellent reasons to teach it in American high schools and colleges. White Americans need to confront America’s racist past so that they can stop perpetuating that racism in the present. People of color need to learn about America’s racist past so that they can survive in America’s racist present.

Robin Bernstein, page 1 from "Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde's Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children"8. There will be those who, upon reading this, say: You’re judging a nineteenth-century novel by twenty-first century standards. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend an essay by Robin Bernstein:

  • “Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde’s Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children,” The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1.1 (Spring 2013): 97-119.

If you lack access to it, I will send you a pdf (my email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s”). In it, she makes the excellent point that the “that’s what everyone thought back then” argument is a weak one: “In the 1850s, some people held radically egalitarian beliefs, while others espoused white supremacy. The same is true today. What has changed is less the array of thinkable thoughts than the proportion of people espousing each belief. … But the full set of racial beliefs has remained relatively stable” (97-98). As she notes, this “relative stability of the range of racial beliefs is important because it refutes a narrative of history that falsely implies that progress is inevitable” (98). In Mark Twain’s time, all people did not hold the same beliefs. To defend Huck Finn’s racism on the grounds that they did colludes with a white supremacist understanding of history, excusing past bigotry without acknowledging the damage inflicted upon real people both past and present.

9. Gribben’s NewSouth edition not only fails to achieve its stated goals. It does real harm to those who read it. Lying to young readers is not educating them. Racist literature should of course be taught alongside other fiction and non-fiction that provide students with more accurate visions of history, allowing them to evaluate critically what they read. But lying via omission is a poor — indeed, a dangerous — solution to dealing with racism.

10. I hope it goes without saying that I welcome criticism of my analysis, above. This chapter is a work in progress. Furthermore, like Alan Gribben (if I’ve read his photo correctly), I am a white male. In the U.S., my skin color and gender allow me not only to evade the daily pain of racism, but also to benefit from it (see “white privilege” in no. 3, above). So, while I hope I’m discussing race and racism with nuance and sensitivity, I know that my own privilege may blind me to the ways I which I’m failing to do so. Where you see me failing, please call me to task. I want to know what I’m getting wrong. Thank you.

Indeed, if you’ll be at the American Studies Association conference next month, elements of the above will appear in my paper — which also addresses Doctor Dolittle, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the role of affect in teaching about all three of these novels. I’d welcome your criticism and comments there, too. The session (no. 408) is Sunday at 12 noon. And, if you’re able to come, you’ll also be treated to three much wiser panelists: Brigitte Fielder, Lori L. Brooks, and Melissa Adams-Campbell.

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Stylish Academic Writing

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic WritingNo, the title of this post is not an oxymoron. Academics can write with style. Some of us do. All of us should. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword offers advice for all who aspire to write with grace and economy. The book is smart, funny, and — even better — applicable beyond academe.

Many of us write the way our disciplines taught us to write, but, as Sword points out, there’s a good degree of variance within any given discipline. People don’t write articles all the same way. In every discipline, there’s room for creativity, space for departing from the formula. Writing bland, jargon-y prose is not the only way to get published. To quote Sword, “academic writing is a process of making intelligent choices, not following rigid rules” (30). That’s the key advice here. You can write well and get published in any discipline; the path to publication involves smart choices, not the strictures of jargon.

Here are six pieces of advice from her book:

  1. Open with something catchy: As Sword puts it, “recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question, dissect a problem” (8).
  2. Prefer active verbs to passive ones: no one likes sentences that erase human agency.
  3. As Richard Lanham famously asked, “Who’s kicking who?” That should be “Who’s kicking whom?,” but the point is sound: nouns and verbs form the backbone of a strong sentence. If your sentence construction obscures cause-and-effect, then rewrite it.
  4. Jargon for its own sake is lazy. Use it when it serves your purpose — as Sword notes, it’s a “highly efficient form of disciplinary shorthand” (117). That’s great. But don’t use it as a substitute for thought. Draw upon the insights of critical theory, philosophy, medicine, and any relevant discipline, but express those insights in clear, concrete prose.
  5. You don’t need to use long sentences all the time. Short ones are nice. Varying sentence lengths works well, too.
  6. Avoid extraneous words and phrases. As Sword writes, “Avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or about three times per paragraph, except in a parallel construction or for stylistic effect. Sentences that rely on subordinate clauses that in turn contain other clauses that introduce new ideas that distract from the main argument that the author is trying to make . . . well, you get the idea” (62).

From my earliest days as an academic, I’ve aspired to write clear sentences. So, in part, Sword’s book has (for me) affirmed what I’ve always tried to do. I know of course that (despite my efforts) I have written sentences that fall short of this goal.  For that matter, I know that I will never be as deft a stylist as Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, or Robin Bernstein (to name a few academics who are also graceful writers), but I also know I can be better.  Sword’s book can help us all be better.

This is why, since I started reading the book, I’ve been recommending it to my fellow academics.  (To give credit where it’s due, Robin Bernstein’s Facebook post of the video below alerted me to Sword’s work.)

The Humanities need scholars who can communicate well. Our professional lives and the futures of our disciplines depend upon our ability to convey our ideas with clarity and grace to legislators and to the general public. The Humanities are not a luxury. As Adam Gopnik wrote so eloquently earlier this week, “We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because […] they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human.”

Stylish Academic Writing has renewed my commitment to writing well.  If more of us take Sword’s advice to heart, perhaps over time, we can help our governments renew their commitments to the Humanities, and to a way of living that puts human beings first — rather than putting first, say, corporate profits, easily quantifiable utility, expensive surveillance, or lethal technologies.  Perhaps.

Even if we fail, it will have been worth the effort.


Bonus: a video on zombie nouns.

Another bonus: some links.

  • Stylish Academic Writing: Harvard University Press’s page, featuring many links.
  • The Writer’s Diet Test: Sword’s automated feedback tool asks “Is your writing flabby or fit?” and invites you to “Enter a writing sample of 100 to 1000 words” and find out.

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10 “Bests” from 2010

1. Best novel that I missed when it came out: Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything (Scholastic, 2006).  Narrated by a nine-year-old, this is an all-ages book about love, faith, and growing up.  It has a sense of humor, too.  I devoted a post to this book earlier in the month.

Dessa, A Badly Broken Code2. Album of the Year: Dessa’s A Badly Broken CodeDessa is a poet who raps and sings.  Consider this excerpt from the chorus to “Children’s Work:” “But some nights I still can’t sleep. / The past rolls back / And I can see us still. / You’ve learned how to hold your own / How to stack your stones / But the history’s thick. / Children aren’t as simple / As we might think.”  And now listen to her perform it:

Children’s Work Dessa

Mesmerizing.  There are also quieter pieces, like “Poor Atlas” or the concluding song “Into the Spin.”  And compelling, moving narratives about relationships, like “Mineshaft II” and “Go Home.”  I had never heard of Dessa before listening to this album (she has one earlier EP), but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for anything else she does.

Suzy Lee, Shadow: cover3. Picture Book of the Year: Suzy Lee’s Shadow.  There were many great picture books this year, but this is one I’d like to see get more attention.  I loved Lee’s debut, Wave (2008), a wordless story of a girl, some gulls, and a wave.  Shadow shows that Lee is here to stay.  You hold the book so that the binding is horizontal, and then lift the pages up.  Above the gutter, a little girl plays in her basement; below it, the shadows convey what she imagines… or do they?  As in Where the Wild Things Are, this beautifully designed book knows that the imagination can have a life of its own.

Thompson, Shapes and Colors4. Best Comic Strip of 2010: Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac.  To read Cul de Sac is to watch a classic being written. I’m reminded of reading Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes as it was being published. I look forward to each day’s strip, and am impressed by the fact Thompson’s invention never seems to flag.  Even more impressive is that the humor isn’t scattershot like Pearls Before Swine: Stephan Patsis’ strip is funny, but I always get the impression that there’s no gag he wouldn’t try.  There are gags Thompson wouldn’t try.  His humor almost always develops from the characters themselves.  If you’ve not read this strip yet, you can read it on Go Comics, or buy any of the four collections — Shapes and Colors is the latest.

Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library No. 205. Best Graphic Novel of 2010: Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library No. 20 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010).  With a modernist’s eye for detail, Ware tells the life story of Jordan Lint, a bully who used to pick on Rusty Brown (featured in Acme Novelty Library Nos. 16 & 17).  The scenes of Jordan’s childhood are worth the price of admission alone: shown from Jordan’s perspective, Ware beaks down the universe into the shapes and objects that a baby sees.  Flattening perspective and labeling each item (tree, car, ant, momma, dad) as if it were a children’s book, one two-page spread shows Jordan witnessing his father hitting his mother.  The layout is bright and beautiful, like a Mondrian painting, but the content is dark — and foreshadows later, troubling developments in Jordan’s personality. Ware’s dense pages that require re-reading, his panels that can be read in more than one sequence, and his extraordinary sensitivity to space, sound, light, time … tend to slip by all but the sharpest students when I teach his work.  But connoisseurs of comics, and my best students, know they’re reading the work of a master.  He’s the James Joyce or Virginia Woolf of the graphic novel.  And Acme Novelty Library No. 20 is one of his best.

6. Best person to follow on Twitter: Steve Martin (SteveMartinToGo).  Wry and consistently funny.  Earlier today (New Year’s Eve), he posted:

4…3…2…1…HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

7. Most interesting person to follow on Facebook: Mark NewgardenMark uses Facebook like others use Twitter — he post links to curiosities, most of them on YouTube.  Recurring subjects include rare animation, and silent films.  I have no idea where he finds all of this stuff.

8. Best Literary Criticism: Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 101 27.4 (Winter 2009): 67-94. This article is actually from 2009, but I didn’t encounter it until this year.  It’s thoughtful, theoretical, historicized — and all rendered in lucid prose.  To answer the question “how do people dance with things to construct race?” Bernstein brings together photography, toys, children’s literature, cultural history, and — with apparent effortlessness — writes with insight and clarity.  For example, to think about script behavior, Bernstein brings in (a) Frances Hodgson Burnett’s childhood re-enactment of scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and (b) E. W. Kemble’s racist A Coon Alphabet (1898).  She writes:

We have contextualizing information in the history of alphabet books, but we have no corroborating archival evidence — no journal entry, no letter, no photograph or film clip, no eyewitness account — to tell us how living children interacted with Kemble’s book. These disparities do not necessarily mean, however, that we can make more reliable inferences regarding performances involving Burnett’s doll than regarding Kemble’s book. To the contrary, we can make more reliable inferences about the latter, because it is possible that Burnett misremembered, distorted, or flat-out lied in her memoir, but it is not possible that no child ever turned the pages of Kemble’s alphabet book. By reading things’ scripts within historically located traditions of performance, we can make well-supported claims about normative aggregate behavior: in the 1890s, competent performers turned pages of picture books. (76)

I like, here, the inversion of expectations: you think that actually having a reaction (Burnett’s) might be the more reliable gauge of how contemporary children reacted, but Bernstein deftly challenges that assumption.  Her book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights is due out from NYU Press in 2011.  You can bet I’ll be buying a copy.

9. Best TV Show: Mad Men.  Confession: I watch very little (in fact, almost no) TV.  I just started watching Mad Men this year (on DVD), and have just finished season 2.  So, I’m unequipped to comment on the latest season.  But what I enjoy about the show is the uneasy juxtaposition of nostalgia for the style of the early 1960s with the lack of nostalgia for the prejudice, sexism, disregard for the environment, etc.  It’s the close proximity of a longing for the look of the time coupled with a distaste for the attendant social mores — that makes the show work.  I also enjoy the fact that it does not editorialize: it simply presents homophobia, sexism, racism, with the knowledge that its viewers will find the behavior repellent.  It helps, of course, that sympathetic characters (Don, Peggy) are more tolerant of difference and more sympathetic to people on the margins of society.  But I find the blunt presentation of ugliness in such a lovingly recreated setting to be very compelling viewing.

Mad Men, Season 2: cast photo on stairs at Sterling Cooper

10. Best App: Angry Birds.  As is true of the above comment, I’m rather unequipped to be claiming what’s “best” here: I don’t spend much time playing games on the iPhone.  Furthermore, I have not played video games of any kind in over 25 years. In fact, this is the only game I play at all. Anyway, Angry Birds has a delightful mix of cuteness and aggression, whimsy and competitiveness.  I also like that it’s not addictive.  It’s enormously fun to play, but then I can put it down for days (weeks!) and do other work.

Angry Birds

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