He was a doctor who made house calls, millions and millions of them, and his unique and wildly popular prescriptions influenced the way generations of children see and understand the world.
Now Dr. Seuss is undergoing his own posthumous examination.
Twenty-six years after the La Jolla children’s book author died, some of his most beloved creations, including “The Cat in the Hat,” are being re-evaluated because of imagery that some consider racist.
The controversy comes amid a longstanding effort to correct a lack of diversity in children’s literature, which is itself part of the ongoing and often explosive debate about race in America.
“Many people are unaware,” librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro wrote, “that Dr. Seuss’ illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and racial 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 the art.”
Her comments drew the attention of media around the world and sparked an uproar in all the usual places where America’s cultural and political disputes get aired.
While supporters praised Soeiro for raising the issue — “You rock,” read one posting, “My hero,” read another — critics accused her of being rude and ungrateful, of “political correctness.” They called her a hypocrite after a photo surfaced of her at a school event wearing a Cat in the Hat stovepipe and clutching a Cat in the Hat doll.
Her school released a statement saying she had been out of line.
The furor quickly overran the underlying question, one that could alter the legacy of a writer whose four-dozen books collectively have sold more than 650 million copies worldwide, whose earnings last year were calculated by Forbes magazine at $20 million (placing him seventh on its list of “Top Earning Dead Celebrities”), whose books are still often the very first given to newborns.
Was Theodor Seuss Geisel racist?
Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University, is one of the nation’s leading Seuss scholars. He’s written three books featuring the children’s author, including “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” Published in August, it explores the impact of blackface caricature and other racial stereotypes on the 1957 story that made Seuss famous.
Nel, who is white, calls Seuss “racially complicated,” and he said to understand why you have to go back to the author’s childhood in the early 1900s, and to “The Hole Book,” which includes a black mammy talking in dialect about a watermelon. It was one of Seuss’ favorites; he remembered it so well that, into his 60s, he could still quote its opening verse by heart, Nel writes.
In high school, Seuss acted in blackface in one production, and at Dartmouth, he drew a cartoon in which two thick-lipped black boxers fight. In the magazine Judge, in the late 1920s, he drew cartoons of blacks that used the N-word.
While readers of Seuss’ children’s books today may be appalled by those images, Nel writes, they were considered acceptable and were “all too common” from cartoonists of that era. The result, according to Nel: “The popular culture of the early 20th Century embedded racist caricature in Geisel’s unconscious, as an ordinary part of his visual imagination.”
In 1937, when Seuss published his first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” it included the image of the Chinese man that triggered the mural controversy at the Seuss museum in Springfield. It has a line about a “Chinaman who eats with sticks.” Years later, recognizing how some readers might be offended by the wording, he changed “Chinaman” to “Chinese man.”
As World War II dawned, Seuss started working for a New York newspaper called PM. From 1941 to 1943, he drew more than 400 editorial cartoons. “He did great anti-racist work there, and he did work that was racist,” Nel said. “It was the same person, the same body of work, done at the same time.”
On one hand were cartoons like “Waiting for the signal from home,” published on Feb. 13, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor, when fears of another Japanese military attack were high, especially on the West Coast. It shows Japanese people, caricatured with slanted eyes and buck teeth, standing in a line that stretches from California to Washington. They are picking up packages labeled “TNT.”
On the other hand were cartoons like the one titled “What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide.” Published on June 11, 1942, it shows another line of people, this time white. They are waiting to be sprayed by an Uncle Sam figure. The man at the front of the line has just been doused, and emerging from one ear is a flying insect labeled “racial prejudice bug.” The man says, “Gracious! Was that in my head?”
To Nel, the “Mental Insecticide” cartoon is an important clue to the racially insensitive imagery that wound up in some of the children’s books.
“You appreciate the impulse there, but he conceived of racism as a bug, and that’s not how it works,” Nel said. “It’s not aberrant, it’s ordinary. It’s not strange, it’s everyday. That’s what he doesn’t understand. Most people who aren’t targeted by racism don’t think about it. He was not unusual in that respect.”
Michelle Martin grew up in South Carolina, attended all black schools, and the first story she remembers reading as a child that featured someone who looked like her was “The Snowy Day.” Published in 1962, it’s widely credited with breaking the color barrier in children’s literature, showing a non-caricatured African-American boy named Peter enjoying the season’s first snowfall.
Martin said it wasn’t until middle school that she learned that the author of “Snowy Day,” Ezra Jack Keats, was white. She had assumed he was black. That experience, and others, got Martin wondering about what else she didn’t know about children’s literature, in particular African-American children’s literature. She grew up to be an expert in the subject and is now a professor at the University of Washington.
“Seuss, like any other author, was a product of his time,” Martin said. “Fortunately, some authors grow and figure out that maybe some of the things they wrote early on were harmful and they try to make amends. Seuss did that.”
In the 1950s, Seuss wrote “If I Ran the Zoo,” which includes drawings of nose-ring wearing Africans and a verse that talks about Asian workers “who all wear their eyes at a slant.” He wrote “Scrambled Eggs Super,” which has Arab stereotypes. He wrote “The Cat in the Hat,” with a main character whose looks (white gloves, jaunty hat, floppy tie) and actions (outsider, con man, ignorant bumbler) can be traced to blackface minstrelsy.
But in that same decade, Seuss also created “Yertle the Turtle,” an anti-fascist send-up of Hitler, and “Horton Hears a Who!” which was dedicated to a Japanese friend and can be seen as an apology of sorts for his racist war-time cartoons. He wrote an essay critical of racist humor, and he published a magazine story that would later become the anti-discrimination book “The Sneetches.”
“There is an evolution in Seuss and an increasing awareness, fueled by his experiences in World War II, of the damage of prejudice and the importance of his role in speaking out,” Nel said. “Yet at the same time, his visual imagination is steeped in racist imagery that gets recycled.”
To the scholars, those seemingly opposite impulses on Seuss’ part suggest someone who wasn’t fully aware of the racial implications of what he was doing. And he wasn’t the only one. Martin pointed to Mildred Taylor, an African-American children’s author best known for “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” which won the Newbery Medal in 1977.
“If you look at all of her books, white women aren’t portrayed in a positive light,” Martin said. “She would say that she was focused on the Depression, on the 1930s, and she was not really looking at her portrayal of white women. But there’s an implicit ideology, the fabric of life she grew up in, that comes out, whether she intended it or not.”
In a statement, Seuss Enterprises said the author’s own story is “one of growth with some early works containing hurtful stereotypes to later works like ‘The Sneetches’ and ‘Horton Hears a Who!’ which contain lessons of tolerance and inclusion.’ The statement concludes with a quote from Seuss: “It’s not how you start that counts. It’s what you are at the finish.”
The need for diversity
So why does this matter, more than a quarter-century after Seuss died at age 87?
Part of it is because his books remain in such wide use, in schools, in homes, in libraries. Kids by the millions still learn to read under his bemused, subversive, zany tutelage. Is there a more instantly recognizable hat than the red-and-white striped one worn by that mischievous cat?
For the past 20 years, the Cat in the Hat has been the mascot of Read Across America, an annual celebration designed to motivate kids to pick up books. Held on March 2, Seuss’ birthday, it features events in cities large and small, attracting an estimated 45 million participants. U.S. presidents and first ladies, senators, mayors, professional athletes — they have routinely donned the striped hat and read Seuss books out loud to groups of children.
But that may be changing. According to an account in School Library Journal, the National Education Association, which sponsors Read Across America, is shifting its emphasis to a year-round calendar that features a diverse collection of books. The move comes amid discussions about Seuss’ early work, particularly the editorial cartoons drawn during World War II, and after the NEA received a report concluding that 98 percent of the people in Seuss’ books are white.
Diversity in children’s literature, or the lack of it, has been a concern for decades, but until recently there’s been little improvement. From 1994 to 2014, the number of books featuring people of color was stagnant, at about 10 percent, even as the population moved toward 40 percent non-white, according to statistics kept by theCooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In 2014, two African-American children’s writers, Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher Myers, wrote opinion pieces in the New York Times decrying what they called “the apartheid of literature.” That led to the formation of We Need Diverse Books and similar organizations pushing the publishing industry to expand their offerings.
In 2015, the percentage of books about people of color increased to 20 percent and last year it went up to 28 percent, the highest on record and maybe the highest ever. (The number of books written by people of color remains low, about 6 percent in 2016.)
That’s important, according to scholars, because the messages children absorb about themselves and the world around them from books can have lasting impacts.
“To see yourself stereotyped, to be caricatured, suggests you are less than human,” Nel said.
And to not see yourself at all? “Imagine growing up in a world where everyone tells you reading is important, books are important, and you are not represented there,” Martin said. “You grow up thinking you must not count.”
Nel said that’s why he wrote “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” — not to bash Seuss, but to give people a more complex understanding of the author and to show them how racism circulates in children’s literature. To spark a conversation.
“The world moves on,” he said. “It shouldn’t surprise us that the books we loved as children and have not thought that deeply about contain ideas and images that we might not want to perpetuate, especially if we are slightly more enlightened than we were 60 or 70 years ago.”
And in some ways, the recent uproars and the ongoing re-evaluation of the books may be just what the doctor ordered. According to Seuss Enterprises, he “would have loved to be a part of this dialogue for change.”
Written by John Wilkens