The complicated quagmire of Dr. Seuss
The decision to stop publishing six of the author's children books comes from the right place, but ultimately might do more damage than good
Could this be the tipping point that gets cancel culture canceled for good? That was the big question on Fox News on Tuesday morning, as Martha MacCallum and many of her colleagues fumed that the beloved children's book author Dr. Seuss was "quite literally being canceled." What actually happened: Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the firm tasked with preserving the late author's legacy, announced its plan to discontinue the publication of six of Seuss' books due to their racist caricatures.
I have little patience for Fox News' cries of "cancel culture": no, right wing personalities are not being silenced, and it's weird to care so much about the gender identification of a toy potato. But there is a more complicated question at the heart of the Dr. Seuss decision, which has nothing to do with the "PC police." Oddly enough, it was Fox & Friend's Steve Doocy who articulated the position on the show: Racist literature, art, and cartoons are a deeply unfortunate part of America's history, but running from that truth is not productive. Dr. Seuss Enterprises' decision comes from the right place, but ultimately might do more damage than good.
This is not the first time Dr. Seuss — born Theodor Seuss Geisel — has been, supposedly, "canceled." Though he's best known for his whimsical and zany illustrations and rhymes, Seuss initially worked as a political cartoonist during the World War II years, targeting "isolationism, anti-Semitism, and racism," The Atlantic reports. But Seuss also took a particularly ugly aim at Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans while he was working for the New York newspaper PM: "[I]t is a surprise that a person who denounces anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism so eloquently can be oblivious of his own racist treatment of Japanese and Japanese Americans," Richard H. Minear wrote in his book, Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel.
Seuss' racist depictions continued as he started publishing for children. The six now-discontinued books — And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), McElligot's Pool (1947), If I Ran the Zoo (1950), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), On Beyond Zebra! (1955), and The Cat's Quizzer (1976) — "portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong," Dr. Seuss Enterprises said of their decision. If I Ran the Zoo is one of the worst offenders of the bunch, including racist caricatures of Africans — who are drawn "shirtless, shoeless, wearing grass skirts, and have tufts of hair sprouting out of their heads" — as well as including text that describes Asian characters as "helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant" from "countries no one can spell," according to Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens' essential 2019 study, "The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books." The authors further discovered that of 2,240 human characters identified in Seuss' 50 children's books, only 2 percent were characters of color, and all of them were "depicted through racist caricatures."
So: Should the six discontinued books be in the classrooms or home libraries of very young children? Definitely not. Kids begin forming racial biases as young as 3 and "by the age of 7, those biases become fixed," NPR reports. We also know that children's development can be harmed by seeing negative depictions of themselves in the media.
Besides, there are so, so many phenomenal children's books out there that don't perpetuate racist caricatures and stereotypes that there is really no reason at all to bother with what are otherwise third-tier Dr. Seuss books. As for the pervasive whiteness of other Seuss classics, parents who want to keep The Cat and the Hat in rotation should, for example, also include Jessica Love's Julián Is a Mermaid in the mix too. Ask your librarian or local bookseller about diverse children's literature; it's what they're there for.
Certainly, though, the nostalgia of having read and enjoyed, say, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street when you were a kid does not somehow make acceptable the book's exaggerated character that is identified by the original text as "a Chinaman who eats with sticks." Seuss actually grew to become more aware of his harmful images later in his life, and to regret them, eventually revising the Mulberry Street text and illustration. "I had a gentleman with a pigtail. I colored him yellow and called him a 'Chinaman,'" Seuss said. "That's the way things were 50 years ago. In later editions, I refer to him as a 'Chinese man.' I have taken the color out of the gentleman and removed the pigtail and now he looks like an Irishman."
Since you're not likely to have a productive conversation about historical racism with a 1-year-old, such revisions are potentially a way to keep the outmoded book in circulation as children's entertainment (racist passages of The Little House on the Prairie books have been amended the same way). For middle-grade and high-school readers, though, the original texts can be useful primary-source documents, exposing them to the unpleasant truths of American history. "Not engaging [with problematic texts] at all runs too great a risk of not learning or understanding where the problems lie," high school English teacher Larissa told NPR. "I believe there is a way to look at material that is stereotypical [and] racist and identify it for what it is, and then hopefully, in doing so, neutralize its effect."
Further, ceasing sales of the books makes them rarer, and counter-productively results in them becoming more valuable in the long run. A pre-revision 1937 copy of Mulberry Street for sale on Abe Books, for example, runs between $3,000 and $9,000. Additionally, many readers proudly boast about reading "banned" or otherwise challenged books, which means terminating the publication of the Dr. Seuss books could potentially make them celebrated for the wrong reasons.
A better approach, then, would be continuing to publish the six books in question, but supplement the editions with historical context and teaching materials. It's a method Disney and Warner Bros. have taken when presenting the works in their catalogs that likewise perpetuate harmful stereotypes — a strategy I've previously endorsed, and found an unlikely ally in. Fox News host Steve Doocy suggested on Tuesday's Fox & Friends, to the bafflement of his co-hosts, that the Dr. Seuss books do the same by adding a "disclaimer that this is from a certain time when feelings like this were widespread." Now, a disclaimer alone isn't enough to protect against negative racial bias, and a 3-year-old isn't likely to get much out of it. The offending books also need to be re-shelved away from children's literature sections in stores and libraries — where an unsuspecting relative might pick them up — and distinguished as products for use in a space where they can raise difficult and educational conversations.
There are many people, though, who have a vested interest in claiming that America isn't racist. It serves their purpose to suggest that enslaved people were content with their lot, and that the Civil War was not about slavery, as to avoid doing the hard reckoning with how that violent history still reverberates today. It's not uncommon to hear politicians and columnists today say that the U.S. "isn't racist," a statement that insultingly erases the trauma non-white people still endure. Donald Trump's entire presidency was based on a rosy nostalgia for the past, one that did not recognize that our past was hardly "great" for everyone. It was that same era, rather, that allowed for Dr. Seuss' most vile drawings to circulate for so long without mainstream outcry.
It is imperative that we not forget this, and that we don't let the forces who are attempting to rewrite and sanitize America's history win. And the way we do that isn't by shying away from the past — nor by letting it persist unquestioned and unchecked, as Doocy's colleagues and the lawmakers who are mad about Dr. Seuss being "canceled," might want. There is a third way: that we acknowledge the past both by preserving and contextualizing it.
If Dr. Seuss could be used to teach a student about America's history, and how we must accept it as a truth in order to strive for a future that is better? Now that would be a legacy.