A couple of weeks ago, Cambridge public school librarian LIZ PHIPPS SOEIRO wrote an open letter to First Lady Melania Trump in which she rejected the donation of ten Dr. Seuss books. Soeiro’s letter turned out to be politically (and possibly professionally) counterproductive; nonetheless, it made a few good points: 1) Mrs. Trump is donating books to school based, not on need, but on test scores, 2) Representing diverse perspectives in children’s books is a good thing, and 3) Children of the 21st century don’t need the children’s books my generation did. Excluding Dr. Seuss from the canon of children’s literature might have drawn a few sighs and shakes of the head from the general public. But accusing the creator of the Sneetches, Yooks, Zooks, and Who’s, not to mention Gerald McBoing-Boing and Bartholomew Oobleck, of racism? It’s not surprising that Soeiro’s letter drew charges of political correctness.
More recently, three children’s book writers “declined to take part in the Springfield Children’s Literature Festival at The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum because a mural there featured a ‘jarring racial stereotype.'” The stereotype in question: an illustration of a happy-looking Chinese man with chopsticks and a bowl of rice.
Merriam-Webster, another Springfield, MA institution, defines a stereotype as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.”
As a middle-aged, white guy, I may not have the best vantage point for judging offensiveness, but I don’t think this picture meets the definitional requirements of a stereotype. This illustration may have represented an “oversimplified opinion” of the Chinese when it was drawn in 1950, but it’s hardly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Chinese people today. Where’s the prejudice or uncritical judgment? Historically, the illustration may have presented an oversimplification of a people, but in the 21st century? The character might as well be a Sneetch. How can it be harmful?
Stereotypes are indeed harmful. At the very least, racial slurs and stereotypes provide a vocabulary for racists to characterize their targets. Is that what this illustration does?
Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. Open one of his books (If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example), and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art.
Are Dr. Seuss’s books saturated with racism? His use of racial stereotypes is no secret. Several years ago, I attended a lecture that included a viewing of his World War II era cartoons. The stereotypes of Japanese characters were indeed disturbing–buck teeth, slant eyes, and Coke bottle bottom glasses. I also came across some grossly racist characterizations of Africans when researching for this post. Needless to say, none of these illustrations appear in Dr. Seuss’s books.
Given the word limits of an open letter, Soeiro’s doesn’t provide an exegesis of “racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes” in If I Ran a Zoo (1950) and And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1937). She does, however, provide hyperlinks, which ultimately lead to two sources: 1) a report issued to the National Educator’s Association, Rethinking Dr. Seuss for NEA’s Read Across America Day, and 2) children’s literature scholar Philip Nel.
Nel has compellingly argued that that racial stereotypes of black people were the source for The Cat in the Hat. Dr. Seuss seems to have based the Cat in the Hat’s smile on a black woman who operated the elevator for a building he worked in. The hat and gloves evidently recall minstrel shows, one of which Dr Seuss appeared in as an adolescent Theodore Geisel. These connections are both academically and biographically interesting. From a scholarly point of view, the racial origins of The Cat in the Hat complicate and deepen our understanding of a major children’s book writer. But how could the racial origins of the The Cat in the Hat have a negative effect on readers today, particularly children?
Minstrelsy and blackface have been an area of academic interest to scholars studying American culture and literature for over 25 years. How many people under the age of 70 know anything about minstrelsy? And of those people who might be familiar with, say, Amos and Andy, how many could recognize the tradition they emerged from as minstrel shows? The Cat in the Hat may have, in Nel’s words, been black. Academically, that’s interesting. But it doesn’t mean readers today, particularly children, will somehow imbibe the racial predilections of Dr. Seuss.
Katie Ishizuka-Stephens, author of Rethinking Dr. Seuss for NEA’s Read Across America Day, and at least an indirect source for Soeiro, believes The Cat in the Hat is as surreptitious and insidious as commies in the 1950s or witches in the 1690s. Their messages sneak into and corrupt the minds of the innocent:
“‘racialized origins [of The Cat in the Hat] flows stealthily into children’s culture [where] the argument appears racially innocent. This appearance of innocence provides a cover under which otherwise discredited racial ideology survives and continues, covertly, to influence culture’” (Nel, 2017). When a Black person or “minstrel” is drawn as a “Cat”, or the color of “ink” is switched from black to “pink”, it disguises the racialized symbols. However, the racialized (and racist) references are there, and they are significant. The “Cat” may ostensibly be a cat, but he looks like, acts like, and is treated like, a minstrel (or dehumanized Black man). The Cat was appropriated from the image of a Black woman, enacts anti-Black references from American culture, and was created from the imagination of a man who performed in his own minstrel shows in blackface.
This is liberal wingnuttery of Biblical proportions. And I mean Biblical. In the real world, meaning comes from the interaction of the reader with the text. A text must be interpreted to be understood. In Ishizuka-Stephens’s world, the meaning of a text transcends history. This is not much different from the Christian fundamentalist belief that God’s eternal word lives in the Bible where it is self-evident and requires no interpretation. Readers who know nothing of minstrel shows or Dr. Seuss’s elevator operator will not be corrupted by racist stereotypes. If the power of stereotypes remained in the drawings, then 19th century caricatures of the Irish would still have the ability to offend. There’s something scholastic, philosophically speaking, and fundamentalist, textually speaking, about hunting historical stereotypes in children’s books. At best, it’s irrelevant, at worst, counterproductive.
Rarely a day goes by that the news doesn’t report on a public official getting sanctioned or fired for racist commentary on social media. Those comments offend because they are based on active racial stereotypes. Political correctness is largely a conservative concept meant to silence liberal points of view and make room for racist and sexist insensitivity, but the witch hunt for racially pure children’s books provides aid and comfort to those who continue to do real damage.