To slightly alter a line from a Paul Simon song: when I think back on all the crap I was fed in childhood, it’s a wonder I can think at all. Despite growing up in the hot bath of White supremacy, patriarchy and homophobia in Jim Crow Virginia, I somehow found my way to socialism. People do grow and change.
These thoughts occurred to me during the controversy over racist imagery in several books by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. His estate recently announced it would cease publishing six of his books that contained these images.
In addition to his books for children, Geisel also created propaganda cartoons during World War II containing racist depictions of Japanese, as did many other cartoonists.
As a father of a child now well past kiddie-book age, the works of Dr. Seuss were a major part of our rotation for several years, from the time I did the reading to when my son could read by himself. Of the six retired books — no one “banned” anything, contrary to the ravings of right-wing culture warriors — the only one I remember reading was And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and I recall the stereotyped Asian figure which appeared briefly. I winced at it, but it was nothing exceptional for a book that appeared in 1937. I don’t recall reading If I Ran the Zoo, but its stereotypical depictions of Africans, Arabs and Asians would have meant no repeat readings.
But the Dr. Seuss books I tended to choose for bedtime reading were favorites such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham, The Sneetches and Other Stories, The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book. Of those, the earliest was Grinch (1957); the latest, The Butter Battle Book (1984). Of the six discontinued books, all were published in 1955 or earlier except for The Cat’s Quizzer (1976). Mulberry Street (1937) was the earliest.
The casual racism of the early Dr. Seuss books was typical of its time. To depict Asians, Blacks and other ethnic groups in stereotypical fashion was common until at least the 1960s, when the civil rights movement began not only winning rights for non-Whites but educating the public at large about the legacy of racism. In a society where racism is “carefully taught” (per the song from South Pacific), racist ideas tend to be the default until they are just as carefully unlearned. Other generations-old books for children have been criticized for their insensitive treatment of race and other issues — and not only overtly racist stories like Little Black Sambo — such as the Babar series by Jean de Brunhoff and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. I remember being taken aback by reading the first of the Curious George books by Margret and H. A. Rey, in which the Man in the Yellow Hat snatches George out of his habitat in the African jungle and no one thinks the worse of him for it. Today — if it could be published at all — it would cause an uproar.
Geisel never publicly repudiated his early stereotypical images, but later in life he wrote books that perhaps were partly designed to atone for them. The Sneetches (1961), if anything, was ahead of its time in directly taking on racism. In the story, the bird-like Sneetches who have stars on their belly regard themselves as superior to those who do not and shun these “inferior” fellows. One Sylvester McMonkey McBean — perhaps representing capitalism? — shows up one day with a machine that can stamp a star on the starless Sneetches, making them indistinguishable from those born with a star. Of course, his services come with a fee. Outraged, the star-born Sneetches pay the monkey to have their stars removed. The story ends with a rich monkey and Sneetches who, although poorer, happily no longer know who was born with a star and who wasn’t.
Other Seuss books contained messages that progressive parents have been proud to include on their children’s bookshelves. The Lorax (1971) championed environmental preservation, while The Butter Battle Book ridiculed Cold War hysteria. And even less overtly political books contained liberal messages. Green Eggs and Ham (1960) was more than a series of catchy rhymes; it encouraged children to be open to new experiences. How the Grinch Stole Christmas critiqued the commercialism of the holidays.
Dr. Seuss’ estate was justified in pulling books that would never be published today — or within the last 30 years. But those volumes are only a slice of Geisel’s output of more than 60 books. Most of his writings are a delight not only for their rhyming wordplay and whimsical drawings but also for the positive messages they convey.
Children and their parents have a lot of choices of reading material. Books with racist stereotypes don’t belong among it. But a lot of Dr. Seuss should be.
If the Doctor was around today, he might write:
I would not read a racist book
I would not even take a look
We can learn from past mistakes
An open mind is all it takes.