I’ve started writing this post 3 times. 3 times I have stopped and deleted it. Time will tell if I make it through the 4th. This is a difficult topic to write about and I’m certain to get blasted for my some of my opinions but it is what it is.
I haven’t watched the news or most television since the height of the political season. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not having the constant sensationalism and on-going hand-wringing of the modern news media has been refreshing. I continued to think “Once this election nonsense is over, I’ll put the news back on” but I really haven’t. Once in a while I catch a glimpse of the news in passing and every time I do I am sorry. Some of the more controversial stories that have appeared lately, is that Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to stop publishing six books that contain “racist and insensitive imagery”. Having vague remembrances of The Cat in the Hat I had to dig further. Truthfully, aside from Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax I don’t really remember anything about any of the Seuss books despite the fact that we had a pretty big collection of them. To understand the racist and insensitive imagery in question I had to dig around the internet.
After a hours or reading and chasing down several rabbit holes a few things became clear. Yes, there certainly is imagery in some Dr. Seuss books that by today’s standards appear at best, unflattering, and at worst, racist. The most egregious of these is probably the portrayal of humanoid monkeys carrying the Tizzle-Top-Tufted Mazurka.
Other examples include Suess’ portrayal of a Chinese boy with a conical bamboo hat and chopsticks, and his portrayal of a Russian with a big bushy beard, and a Cossack-style hat.
There are other examples pointed out elsewhere in criticism of If I Ran the Zoo and the other five books that are no longer to be published. It is noteworthy that the decision was made by the Dr. Seuss family and enterprise to cease publication. There was not a call to remove existing books from the shelves or otherwise “cancel” Dr. Seuss as some like to say. Independently, some libraries, schools, and other organizations have either already removed Seuss books from their resources or are discussing removal of the six books in question.
As I researched the accusations against the Dr. Seuss I saw every interpretation from Dr. Seuss was an extreme racist to much more reasonable views highlighting that, while not acceptable today, Seuss was acting within the norms of his time. I did stumble across one very well written blog by a mother from a mixed-race marriage who shared her observations while reading the very books mentioned to her children. It is noteworthy that in each scenario presented by the author, her child did not interpret racism in the images until the mother pointed it out. Using the example of the picture with the Tizzle-Top-Tufted Mazurka, the child saw the beings bearing the pole with the fictional bird on it as monkeys. The mother explained that Seuss meant them to represent native Africans.
I would have liked to believed that Seuss’s depiction of the natives of Yurka were nothing but a product of his own imagination much like the other fictional creatures from his books. Unfortunately, in researching this post, it is clear from Seuss’ advertising works for Flit Sprays that this truly was his common portrayal of those of African descent. That said, his caricature-based cartoonsmanship doesn’t really lend flattering features to anyone. Still, by today’s measure these drawings don’t pass muster. But remember they were drawn 80 years ago.1
I find myself a bit critical of the mother from the blog when she corrected her child that the pole carriers were not monkeys but meant to be people like her. What harm is there in letting the child interpret the pictures how they want? After all, the very premise of cultural enjoyment is our own interpretation.
Before continuing I have to state that, until recently, I believed a monkey to be a generic name for various non-human primates. I had no idea it was considered a racial slur. I’m still not sure when that started or how it came about. For future reference, if I refer to monkeys I’m talking about the cute little primates pictured here. (Or similar.)
I would ask that before taking offense at something like Dr. Seuss or his pictures let’s remember that these books were meant to provide a few moments of bonding between parent and child and not serve as cultural references. They feature made up animals in made up lands all with fun, rhyming names. There aren’t really Whos living in a dust spec. The Lorax is not real. There is also no such thing as a Flustard or Scraggle-Foot Mulligatawny either. Nor is there a land of Zomba-ma-Tant or Zind. We should not read more into such fiction than exists and certainly should eye such things from a child’s innocent perspective and not that of a worldly, disappointed adult.
That said, when placing If I Ran the Zoo and other Suess works under the social microscope that is 2021 one can easily be critical of the use of stereotypes to depict the nationality of some characters.
The issue arises when we scrutinize yesterday’s literature against today’s standards. Are they racist? Were they intended to be racist? Do we penalize the author for simply subscribing to the views and beliefs of the day? Do we penalize readers by removing anything labelled as “offensive” by today’s measurements from publication or from book shelves? Again, let’s reference Seuss’s “If I Ran the Zoo”. Forgetting fictional characters, what about his portrayal of people from foreign lands? Are they stereotypical? No doubt! Were they stereotypical in 1950? Probably not. When attempting to depict a Chinese boy in China, what reference would we he have other than the description of China brought back from the veterans of World War II? Or pictures in an encyclopedia? (For the younger generation, an Encyclopedia were books we used prior the existence of Google.)
There was no internet and no Google to research “Life in China”. As far as we can tell from looking at Seuss’s life he didn’t travel abroad extensively and considering the primary purpose his books was the entertainment and delight of children and not any sort of factual of cultural reference, there is some leeway for creative license in making clear the desired nationality of his characters. Was he trying to be demeaning of Africans? Or Chinese? Russians? I don’t know for sure but considering the political cartoons he posted speaking out against racism during World War II, it is doubtful he had malicious intent.
In fact, after spending considerable time reading about Seuss’s political efforts in WWII, were he alive today I suspect Seuss would have spent the last 4 years vehemently speaking out against President Trump’s MAGA campaign. Seuss’s WWII era political cartoons spoke vociferously against Roosevelt’s isolationist and “America First” policies and deeply reflected the idea that Americans were not better or superior to the rest of the world.
It is noteworthy that the above advertisements were published at UC San Diego with the following warning: Readers may find the following images offensive or upsetting. Re-read that because it is important. While a glance at these advertisements certainly can quickly (and rightfully) engender anger at the awful portrayal of African people, if one considers Seuess’s works as a whole we quickly realize there is likely no dark intention of the Doctor to plant seeds of racism within his works. In fact, books like The Sneetches teach the message of unity and ignoring physical differences. Oddly, this one doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of the news. Apparently it does not raise the ire of those seem to thrive on having their ire raised.
To be clear, I’m not discounting anyone’s opinion. If you choose not to read Dr. Seuss (or any other book) to your child that is certainly your choice. Heck, I don’t even have kids. Who am I to judge? But before being offended at fictional characters from fictional places in books meant to give parents a few tender moments with their child, ask yourself if you are finding a problem where there is no intent? Is it really necessary to purge the world of Dr. Seuss books? Yes, I know it’s only six books and it was the publishers choice.
What about the greater works of literature that are under duress? There has been more than one call to remove Moby Dick from school libraries and curriculums because of racist content simply because of the phrase “Noble Savages”. This phrase makes up two words out of 206,000+ in, what is considered be one of the greatest pieces of American literature. Forget the fact that Ishmael establishes a brotherhood and friendship with Queequeg. It is noteworthy that the two friends were separated on board the Peaquod when Queegueg as given much more preferred accommodations in the aft of the ship rather than where Ishmael (a common sailer) was billeted in the fore.
I’ll pause here to say that one could spend a week or more reading the lengthy American masterpiece, but spend years reading papers, abstracts, and studies about “Moby Dick”. I’ve spent hours so far and they’ve blended together into a mishmash of words in my head that would have chocked the great white whale himself. Approximately half the studies say Melville was a racist and the book described a tale of ‘white saviorism’ where white men allowed those from foreign lands to help them. The other half of the studies say that Melville embraced and enjoyed cultural differences and described the brotherhood of all mankind from a bygone era of American History.
I read “Moby Dick” as a teenager. I read it on my own and not for an assignment. I don’t remember focusing on race but rather on what a great and intense story “Moby Dick” was. I fantasized about being Queequeg and hurling a great harpoon at a whale. I envisioned him as a big, strong, athletic man from a foreign land. I didn’t care about his skin color. Meanwhile, I pictured Ahab as a bit of a senile old man.
Like the Seuss works, in the papers I read that were critical of Melville, it seemed like the authors went looking for a problem. One blogger (whom seems so biased I won’t link) posts a blog “Racist Moby Dick”. The title itself is a bit like asking “Don’t you think Tom Brady is a cheater?” and expecting an objective, studied answer. In the post I found this text:
When Ishmael (/Melville) does describe people he often emphasises the positives — describes how strong or kind or gentle or jolly they are. However the descriptions are rarely as nuanced or carefully thorough as those of for instance Ahab and other non-racialized characters. As bell hooks and many others before hooks have noted, these positive descriptions might first seem attractive, but they lead to a consumption of the other and an essentializing exotification nonetheless.
The author is digging deep here to find racism. The referenced blog post states that the author read “Moby Dick” in 2018. It was written in 1850. In 1850 there was no air travel, and no internet. Books, magazine, and newspapers were the playground of the monied. Wordly communication was limited to printed word and human interaction. There wasn’t even a radio station yet. Chances are a white New Englander knew the characteristics and personalities of other white New Englanders and other white people in general but probably unfamiliar with people from foreign lands. Just as Ishmael was at first shocked by Queequeg’s appearance no-doubt other Americans would be as well. Given Melville’s attempt to describe Ishmael’s friendship and admiration for his new ship mates it seems reasonable that he would over-emphasize personal descriptions of the unfamiliar. But not unlike suggesting to your child that they be appalled by Seuss instead of entertained, it us easier to be more critical and less tolerant.
Phew. Well that was a little boring? Still with me? Hate me yet? Am I the root of all evil? If you are still here, it is noteworthy that since I started writing this rather lengthy tome, it seems that Speedy Gonzales and Pepé Le Pew have become the latest objects of the attempts to purge American culture of all things potentially offensive. Apparently New York Time columnist Charles Blow has declared Pepé a father of rape culture and apparently Speedy is a racist. So, to be clear, an amorous French cartoon skunk (who, by the way, never got the girl) is a rapist, and a two-legged mouse who runs around at hyper-speed mumbling inaudible Spanish phrases is racist.
I know I’m a privileged old white guy not really allowed to have a real opinion on such things because of my gender and skin color but I have to say that some of this is getting a bit ridiculous.
I can’t close this post out without highlighting that while calls to end racism and rape culture in children’s entertainment go on, it is perfectly fine to exist in certain forms of music. Popular music makes regular use of the “N” word and this seems okay. (Unless I were to sing one of those songs while outside washing my car.) Meanwhile National Public Radio’s top 100 songs of 2020 has Cardi B’s “WAP” as number one. I refuse to publish the lyrics here or even a link to the song. It is extremely vulgar and makes prominent use of the “N” word but is apparently okay for people’s kids to rock out to as long as they aren’t watching Pepé Le Pew.
1 Seuss created advertisements for for Flit insecticides for 17 years. This work carried Seuss and his family through the depression. As demonstrated in “The Lorax”, Seuss was a devout environmentalist. It is ironic that Flit Insecticides were one of the main contributors to the DDT problem that did great environmental harm in the late 1900s.