In 1982, the American Library Association established Banned Books Week in response to the increase in challenges to books in libraries, classrooms, and school libraries.
Of course, censorship and challenging creative thought did not begin in the 1980s. The earliest form of censorship was book burning, carried out in order to solidify governmental power, erase history, and prevent the spread of ideas.
Dr. Whitney Strub tackles the latter in “Black and White and Banned All Over: Race, Censorship, and Obscenity in Postwar Memphis.” According to Strub, the Board of Censors and the Memphis city government worked to censor films and media that they considered inappropriate. Ultimately, the films that they censored included scenes featuring a mixing of Black and White characters. There was a particular focus on regulating images of real or imagined intimate relations between Black men and White women, a trope that is a legacy of Reconstruction. The censors felt that the message of these films was one of “social equality” that challenged normative values. The intent was that by censoring these images, the Black community in Memphis would not get the wrong idea about their “place” in society.
Books, film, and art are commonly banned or challenged in American society because they are sexually explicit. However, as Strub notes, historically people use sex as a code for race. It is easier or more politically correct to claim that you oppose a work of art because it is sexually explicit, than to object to how it portrays race. A prime example of this comes from the challenges of Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou in schools and libraries across the country. All three of these works deal with issues relating to racism and have a sexual component. Nevertheless, they make a larger argument about the role and treatment of girls and women in American society.
Attempts to remove texts like these limit students’ ability to engage with subject matter that will help them survive in society and understand what is happening in their own lives and the lives of others. Tonya Perry explores the impact in “Taking Time to Reflect on Censorship: Warriors, Wanderers, and Magicians.” She notes that there are three roles an educator can play: warrior (who teaches just the facts), wanderer (who encourages questioning and interpreting experiences), and magician (where learning meets action and transformation). The magician educator will have material that addresses subject matter such as sexual harassment, sexuality, racism, and sexism, and demonstrates to students how they can put this knowledge into action. Thus, students become producers as opposed to being consumers of knowledge.
According to Perry, those who censor in an attempt to “protect” students are actually doing them a disservice by not providing them the language and tools to communicate. Furthermore, it disproportionately impacts the students who come from underrepresented communities. Censorship signifies that their stories and histories are not valuable or important enough to be studied. As Strub notes, the act of censoring puts attention on the action of the challenge rather than addressing the societal issues that are facing American communities. In other words: censorship is a dangerous distraction.
If the sharp end of critique’s job is to name injury, then it also has a soft lining that is oriented around recovery and repair. Even if a particular critical project stays with injury rather than whatever might come after, what else is there to want, in the wake of naming injury, but to fix it? Both writers and readers of such critiques are thrust into a morality tale, the drama of selves...
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The long “Red Summer of 1919” saw a brutal outburst of mob violence directed against African Americans across the country. James Weldon Johnson, field secretary of the NAACP, was the one to name it the “Red Summer.” This “red” was for blood. Among other horrors, there were race riots, ninety-seven lynchings, and a pogrom-like massacre of somewhere between 100 and 237 people in Elaine, Arkansas.
As historian David F. Krugler writes, one of the worst race riots shook Washington DC from July 19th to July 22nd, 1919. On the night of July 18th, a young white woman was attacked, and rumors quickly spread that two African American men were guilty. Her husband worked for the Navy, and soon a mob of white servicemen and veterans were descending upon a predominately African American neighborhood, attacking everyone they encountered. The Home Defense League, a civilian vigilance committee officially sanctioned by the war effort to enforce patriotism and “Americanism,” also joined in.
At the time, demobilized soldiers were allowed to wear their uniforms after leaving service. And in DC, this practice led to confusion about who was who in the white mobs roaming the streets: “Uncertain lines between soldier, citizen, and volunteer helped make Washington’s riot unique,” writes Krugler.
The attackers claimed they were protecting “white womanhood.” Krugler suggests they were also envious of DC’s vibrant black middle class and enraged by the idea that there were African Americans employed by the federal government.
Another characteristic of Washington’s race riot was that this white vigilantism was excused if not actually encouraged by the city’s white-owned newspapers during the events. “Negro Fiend,” “Negro Thugs,” and “Negro Rioters” were typical headline and caption terms. Most notoriously, writes Krugler, the front page of the Washington Post of July 21st “all but ordered white servicemen to mobilize at Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street that night to carry out out further attacks on African Americans.”
There were multiple deaths and hundreds of injuries before the Secretary of War called in Army General William Haan to restore order. With no active duty black soldiers serving on riot duty, black Washingtonians were understandably worried about white troops sent to protect them. “Riot troops” meant something entirely different to them. Some fought back, contending both “with white mobs and hostile authorities,” including brutal treatment in police precinct jails.
There’s some irony in the General being tasked with quelling the violence, for it was the white servicemen, both recently demobilized and active duty soldiers, sailors, and marines, who had led the attacks against the black population. While the riot was suppressed by July 22nd, the last of Haan’s troops wouldn’t be pulled out until the 31st. President Wilson, who had spent much of the year at the Paris peace talks, fretted that the riots would, in the words of the Washington Times, “make a detrimental impression in countries where heretofore America had been regarded as the foremost exponent of social equality and justice.”
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The plague of lynchings of Mexican-Americans in the American West has long been excluded from history books. For the Journal of Social History, historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb analyzed hundreds of such extrajudicial killings that occurred between 1848 and 1928. They write:
Although widely recognized in the Mexican community on both sides of the border, and among some scholars, the story of mob violence against Mexicans remains relatively unknown to the wider public.
Defining lynching as “a retributive act of murder for which those responsible claim to be serving the interests of justice, tradition, or community good,” Carrigan and Webb catalogued 597 lynchings of persons of Mexican origin or descent in the United States. They stress that this is a conservative estimate. “It is obviously true that no amount of historical research will ever reveal every single lynching victim—no matter their race and ethnicity—that is anywhere near the actual number of victims.”
The locations of most of these cases were Texas (282), California (188), Arizona (59), and New Mexico (49). Breaking down the incidents, Carrigan and Webb found that the years between 1848-1879 had the astonishing lynching rate of 473 per 100,000 people. This was during the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, when a large part of Mexico was annexed and colonized by the U.S. Carrigan and Webb call this period one of “unparalleled danger from mob violence” for people of Mexican ancestry.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the rate had reduced to 27.4 lynching victims per 100,000. As a matter of comparison, in the same period rates of lynching for African Americans in the South varied from North Carolina’s 11 per 100,000 to Alabama’s 32.4 per 100,000.
As in the South, the West’s lynchings also included the “active collusion of law officers themselves.” The legal system also failed to sanction those who lynched. “For decades lynch mobs terrorized persons of Mexican origin or descent without reprisal from the wider community,” Carrigan and Webb write, noting that “most systemic abuse of legal authority was by the Texas Rangers. Their brutal repression of the Mexican population was tantamount to state-sanctioned terrorism.”
Texas had been carved out of Mexico by pro-slavery forces who would go on to enshrine white supremacy in their state constitution. “Well into the twentieth century,” write Carrigan and Webb about Texas, “the majority white culture continued to utilize extra-legal violence against Mexicans as a means of asserting its sovereignty over the region.” Lynching in Texas and elsewhere in the West was “one of the mechanisms by which Anglos consolidated their colonial control of the American West.”
The “primacy of racial prejudice” as motivation for lynching was underlined by the ritualized torture of victims, who were shot, burned, and mutilated before and after hanging. Anglos were also victims of lynch mobs, of course, but without the ceremony and public spectacle. The violence done to bodies of Mexican ancestry victims was “a symbolic message contained in the mob’s assertion of Anglo sovereignty.” Multiple lynchings were also unusually common. In 1877, for instance, the murder of a white man was “avenged” by the random slaughter of as many as forty people in Nueces County, Texas.
Carrigan and Webb date the last lynching of a person of Mexican origin to 1928. They attribute the ending of this social practice to constant pressure from Mexico forcing the U.S. government to take action. In one notorious 1911 case, the burning alive of a Mexican national by a Texas mob sparked riots outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and led to a boycott of U.S. goods. A burgeoning Mexican-American civil rights movement and the nation-wide campaign against mob violence helped diminish the dominant culture’s acceptance of mob-led racist terrorism.
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As we reconsider the works of Dr. Seuss on what would have been his (well, Theodor Seuss Geisel’s) 115th birthday, I encourage you to take a look at Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens’ “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” just published in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature last month. To give you a sense of the article’s impact, it has been downloaded over 18,000 times (as of this writing) and is mentioned in an NPR story.
I don’t have anything further to add, having written quite a bit on Seuss — including the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat in the Hat. You can find that in the title chapter of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (2017), which will be out in paperback on the 29th of this month. The paperback includes a new Afterword on “Why Adults Refuse to Admit Racist Content in the Children’s Books They Love” — in which I read some of the hate mail that the hardcover inspired, with the goal of educating people who are reluctant to reflect on their “problematic faves” from childhood.
Separating children from their parents is a violation of basic human rights and does not deter asylum-seekers. Hostile to facts and compassionate only towards himself, Mr. Trump has pursued this policy with reckless indifference to its consequences. As of the end of last month (over four months after the court-imposed deadline to reunite these families), over 140 children had still not been reunited with their parents. And that figure does not include the over 15,000 children locked up in Trump’s child detention centers.
Writing about Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature — the theme of this special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly — will not stop the US government’s (or any other government’s) crimes against humanity. And yet, I edited this special issue, which features smart essays by six sharp scholars: Debra Dudek, Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo, Leyla Savsar, Anastasia Ulanowicz, Maria Rosa Truglio, and Sara Van den Bossche. Why? Not because we expect our words to awaken the consciences of those in power — if, indeed, the people who support these policies possess consciences. We write because we speak as we can, in the venues available to us. Because all scholarship is, in some measure, a record of the time in which it was written. Because children’s literature can cultivate empathy. Because children’s literature can (to borrow Rudine Sims Bishop’s famous term) serve as a mirror to young people who have been displaced — geographically, culturally, emotionally. Because words and images can change minds.
Or, at least, that is what I believe. As I write in my introduction,
When children’s literature cultivates an empathetic imagination, it can bring people of all ages closer to understanding the displacement felt by migrants, refugees, and those in diasporic communities. Such literature can affirm the experiences of children in those communities, letting them know that they are not alone….
As scholars of children’s literature, we are not, alas, in charge of shaping humane policies for our governments. But we can, to borrow the words of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, help people to envision “a world without borders as we have known them—a world in which nation-states are not prized or assumed.” We can guide readers to books that harness the imagination’s power to nourish empathy, and we can steer them away from those that reinforce bigotry. Thanks to our professional training, we understand that such work is necessary and complicated: A work’s propagation of prejudice can be both subtle and overt. Art is often ideologically ambivalent, humanizing in some ways and dehumanizing in others. Another thing we can do, then, is to teach people how to spot the difference. Careful, thoughtful readers can resist lies, misinformation, and scapegoating. By helping us develop the necessary critical literacies, the articles in this issue foster these vital skills.
The issue is available via ProjectMuse. If you are affiliated with an institution that subscribes to Project Muse, please access the articles that way. Doing so generates revenue for the Children’s Literature Association — an organization of which I am a member. If you lack access to the issue, I am glad to send you a pdf of my introduction. Just drop me a line. (Email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s,” even though I have long since removed mp3s from this blog.)
I’ll conclude with the two autobiographical paragraphs from my introduction:
I proposed this special issue, in part, because I am from a family of immigrants and am the descendant of refugees. The Nels were among those 2 million seventeenth-century French Protestants (Huguenots) whose flight from persecution introduced the word refugee into the English language. Today, my extended family (nuclear family plus cousins, uncles, and aunts) lives in five countries on four continents. We are a migratory group. In migrants, refugees, and the diasporic, I see my own family.
But I also see my family in the people who caused such displacement—from the active Islamophobe who supports a “Muslim ban” to the passive inheritors of White supremacy. I am aware that my being born in the US has everything to do with my parents being White South Africans and not Black South Africans. Their Whiteness granted them access not just to the education that made finding an American job possible, but also to the basic human rights that significantly increased the chances that they would survive and flourish. Indeed, my own flourishing is built upon a range of intersecting structures of oppression.
I’ve written more on this subject elsewhere on this blog — perhaps most directly in “Charleston, Family History, and White Responsibility” (June 2015). For the past few years, that post has only been available via its archival presence on the Wayback Machine, for reasons explained in the footnote below.* But there are plenty of other autobiographical posts hosted here, some of which address White Privilege and White Responsibility.
But,… returning to the special issue. Remember: human rights do not depend upon citizenship. Humanity has no borders.
Thanks to the editorial consultants for this issue: Evelyn Arizpe, Clare Bradford, Ann Gonzalez, Gabrielle Halko, Gillian Lathey, Kerry Mallan, Robyn McCallum, Mavis Reimer, Lara Saguisag, Lee Talley, Jan Van Coillie, Lies Wesseling
* My father was furious at me for speaking the truth. In an effort to keep the peace, I deleted the post (though, while writing this post now, have added a link from that post to the Wayback Machine’s archival record). This effort failed; dad stopped speaking to me shortly thereafter. Incidentally, ideas expressed in it emerge in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (notably, the end of Chapter 3), but (unlike the original post) do so without identifying specific individuals.
Last month, there was some on-line discussion about this quote (from me) in a CNN.com article:
But Nel argues that the answer isn’t simply removing “problematic” children’s classics like Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which uses the N-word 219 times, from school reading lists.
Such stories, “if used carefully, appropriately and in context can be a way to educate people about racism,” he says.
Teaching problematic children’s classics can allow children of color to critique and disagree with a book, express anger at oppression and find the language to talk about racism while also teaching white children to identify racist ways of thinking and challenge their own racialized assumptions, Nel explains.
My thanks to all who have participated in this conversation, and my apologies for joining it a little late.
Oh, god. This makes me ragey: pic.twitter.com/z3Krc9M5RB
— Mom’Baku Kennedy (@MicaKenBooks) October 23, 2018
Mica Kennedy (@MicaKenBooks on Twitter) embeds the above quotation and then asks, “These texts are inherently damaging — yet somehow, it’s the job of black children to rise above and make this a teaching moment? I. Think. The. Hell. Not.”
This CNN article quoting Philip Nel just makes me angry each time I look at it.
Native/Kids of color will do what?! https://t.co/1GI7wAmArB
— Dr. Debbie Reese (@debreese) October 23, 2018
Dr. Debbie Reese (@debreese on Twitter) writes, “This CNN article quoting Philip Nel just makes me angry each time I look at it. Native/Kids of color will do what?!”
In response, Dr. Laura M. Jimenez (@booktoss on Twitter) writes, “There is so much wrong with the paragraph. So, so, so wrong. Mostly, @philnel’s white privilege is visible. Hell, his privilege is having a damn parade!”
— Dr. Laura M. Jimenez (@booktoss) October 24, 2018
These critics helpfully highlight the context absent from that quotation, and I am grateful to them for doing so. While such texts can provide a teaching moment, it is not the job of Black children to (if I may quote Mica Kennedy) “rise above and make this a teaching moment.” I can see how the above quotation might convey that impression, but I emphatically do not recommend a pedagogical practice that relies upon Black, indigenous, and children of color to educate their peers. Thanks to Ms. Kennedy, Dr. Reese, and Dr. Jimenez for their critiques.
This blog post is my attempt to publicly counter the potential harm that may be done if people walk away from the CNN.com article with the wrong impression. I wouldn’t want the excerpted quotation to enable the perpetuation of racist harm in classrooms. For example, let us imagine that a child or parent of color objects to a teacher’s inclusion of Huckleberry Finn or Little House on the Prairie, and this teacher then cites that quotation as justification for his or her argument. Indeed, should that (or something similar to that) happen, please direct the teacher to this blog post. Then, you can tell the teacher, “Actually, no. That is not what he meant at all.”
Here’s a little context missing from the CNN.com quotation, but present in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (2017). Bowdlerized versions of racist classics aspire to remove the racism but instead re-encode it more subtly. So, if (and only if) one is going to read those books, better to read the un-Bowdlerized versions and to do so in context — in the context of books that offer accurate representations and that debunk the racism.
That said, and as also noted in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, there are excellent reasons for not teaching or reading such books at all. Here are two paragraphs from Chapter 2 of the book:
Advocates of bowdlerizing or banning these novels correctly point to the powerful role that the original versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Doctor Dolittle have played in dehumanizing people of color. As New York librarian Isabelle Suhl wrote in 1968, “what justification can be found by anyone—and I ask this particularly of those adults who still defend Lofting—to perpetuate the racist Dolittle books? How many more generations of black children must be insulted by them and how many more white children allowed to be infected with their message of white superiority?” Racist texts can inflict real psychic damage on children of all races, but the child who is a member of the targeted group sustains deeper wounds than the child who is not. The racial ideologies of Dahl, Lofting, Travers, and Twain all but ensure that children who are (and have historically been) the targets of prejudice will suffer in ways that White children will not. The White child who encounters the n-word or Prince Bumpo or an Oompa-Loompa has the unearned privilege of not seeing people of her or his race being stereotyped. That said, as Suhl notes, such books damage White children, too, conveying to them that they are more important, and that dominating people of color is acceptable. Prejudice harms different groups in different ways, and its harmful effects are not distributed equally. Even assigning such a text risks reinforcing structural racism.
Indeed, there is a case to be made for removing racist books from grade-school curricula. Julius Lester has admitted that he is “grateful that among the many indignities inflicted on me in childhood, I escaped Huckleberry Finn.” He adds that, “as a black parent,” he sympathizes “with those who want the book banned, or at least removed from required reading lists in schools. While I am opposed to book banning, I know that my children’s education will be enhanced by not reading Huckleberry Finn.” John H. Wallace goes even further, arguing that Huckleberry Finn “should not be used with children. It is permissible to use the original Huckleberry Finn with students in graduate courses of history, English, and social science if one wants to study the perpetuation of racism.” We could develop this line of reasoning further, and argue that the best way to hasten the decline of a racist classic—and thus the racism it may propagate—is not to teach it at all, at any level.
The chapter then goes on to explore how racist children’s books — used in context of accurate, anti-racist children’s books — might be pedagogically useful. And it is quite specific in calling out the racism of these novels. For instance, as Jonathan Arac, Julius Lester, and many others have pointed out, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is not the progressive anti-racist classic that it’s promoted as being.
For more on why not to teach Huckleberry Finn, see Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, edited by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis (1992). The book includes Julius Lester’s “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and John H. Wallace’s “The Case Against Huck Finn,” both of which I quote above. See also Jonathan Arac’s Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time (1997), which addresses how the novel’s “hypercanonization” has obscured its racism.
On the potential dangers that racist literature poses to Black, indigenous, and children of color, see Oyate’s “Living Stories”.
Racism damages everyone, but inflicts greater pain on its targets. As I say in the CNN.com article, “The stories that children read at a young age tell them who matters and who doesn’t matter, who’s human and who isn’t human. A story doesn’t have to tell us that explicitly. It can tell us that by failing to represent certain groups of people — omission tells us that these groups of people are not important.”
* * * * *
Thanks to Allie Jane Bruce for alerting me to the existence of this debate. When the CNN article ran, I was (and still am) traveling, and so I noted the appearance of the piece but didn’t have a chance to do more than glance at it.
As you may or may not have noticed, my use of social media has declined over the past year or so. I check in on Facebook once every couple of weeks. I am still on Twitter, but (with the exception of three days in Atlanta and two in England) have been on Central European Time since the first of August. So, I am sure I’m missing conversations that I should be noticing.
I also don’t fault the CNN piece for lacking the full context. Several reasons. First, the exigencies of news media tend to lose the nuances. Elisions are endemic to the medium. Second, journalism is a tough job: writers have to balance a range of information in a very compact form, and yet manage to sustain a reader’s attention. They also may not have full editorial control. A third reason that this may not be the journalist’s fault at all: I have no recollection of the interview. When the journalist kindly wrote me to say that the piece had been published, I then noted (via our earlier embedded emails at the bottom of the note) that we had talked back in April. So, during our interview, it’s entirely possible that I failed to emphasize the context provided above. If that’s the case, then the fault is entirely mine.
Two more concluding thoughts. First, I should not take for granted that everyone is aware of the unavoidable elisions and compressions of the news media. Over the course of my career, I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times. As a result, I take for granted that the entire arc of one’s argument may not appear in full. However, I recognize that my experience is unusual and so I need to do a better job monitoring — and, in cases like this, responding to — how statements are represented.
Second, and as noted in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?,
While it is impossible to grow up in a racist culture and not absorb some of its messages, it is very easy to be unconscious of what you have absorbed. That is how dominant ideologies work: their messages seep in subtly, persistently, without your noticing. When I was preparing to teach the book in a college class, I picked up Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo for the first time. As I read it, I had the unsettling experience of realizing that I already knew the story. This was not the first time I had encountered Little Black Sambo. Had I read Bannerman’s version? Or perhaps an edition with more grotesque racial caricature, such as John R. Neill’s? What other half-remembered stories (suffused with racial caricature or otherwise) were lurking in my subconscious? As I mentioned in the introduction, only when I reflect upon the racist culture of my childhood—the Gollies, the Uncle Remus stories, Little Black Sambo, the near-absence of narratives featuring people of color—can I begin to contemplate how it shaped my own racial and, yes, racist assumptions about other people. A writer, artist, or critic may not intend to perpetuate stereotypes, but—especially when left unexamined—ideology trumps intention…. [W]ell-intentioned people can still act in ways that reinforce racism, unaware that they are doing so. Since the United States is such a segregated country, White people live in an environment structured to prevent our awareness of race and racism. These geographies and the culture itself make it easy for Whites to avoid reflecting upon our raced selves. All who work in the field of children’s literature and culture need to reflect, and strive to do better.
As the critiques generously provided by Ms. Kennedy, Dr. Reese, Dr. Jimenez and others indicate, I need to do better. Here are some resources to help all of us do better:
The objects of your nostalgic longing may disappoint you, if you are willing to look at them openly and honestly. If you read, create, or write about children’s literature, today — the 114th birthday of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) — would be a good time to admit this to yourself. OK, the time for such admission is really long overdue, but do not be too hard on yourself. The power of cultural inertia is hard to resist.
That said, do resist. Make the attempt. As Seuss himself wrote in a different context, “face up to your problems / whatever they are.”
This particular problem is one to tackle today because Seuss’s work contains both much to admire and much to oppose. Yet, because of his status, people are much more comfortable admiring than looking critically at his work. In the U.S., he is revered as a patron saint of children’s literacy, and children’s literature. In 1997, the National Education Association adopted his birthday as a day to celebrate “Read Across America Day.” It still uses his Cat in the Hat as its mascot, even though — starting this year — it’s shifting its focus to diverse books.
I am partly to blame for this shift.
In a report that helped inspire this change, Katie Ishizuka-Stephens cites the essay that became the title chapter of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black? As I point out, Seuss’s Cat is racially complicated. He’s partially inspired by blackface minstrelsy, African American elevator operator Annie Williams (who wore white gloves and a secret smile), and Krazy Kat (the black, ambiguously gendered creation of bi-racial cartoonist George Herriman).
I’m happy that Ishizuka-Stephens’s report has persuaded the NEA to shift their “Read Across America Day” focus to diverse books. Half of U.S. school-age children are nonwhite. But of children’s books published in 2016, only 22 percent of children’s books published featured nonwhite children, and only 13 percent were by nonwhite creators. Celebrating stories in which our multicultural young people can see themselves is a better choice than celebrating Seuss.
Which is not to say that Seuss must be thrown out of our classrooms — though that is of course an option. It is, rather, to suggest that we consider which Seuss we use, and how we use it.
At left: Dr. Seuss, from “Four Places Not to Hide While Growing Your Beard” (Life, 15 Nov. 1929). At right: Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957).
Racial caricature in Seuss’s work can help people understand how racism works. Seuss did both racist work and anti-racist work, often at the same time. In the 1940s, he created political cartoons, some of which dehumanized people of Japanese descent, and others of which were critical of both anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans. In the 1950s, Seuss published Horton Hears a Who!, hailed by one reviewer as “a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights”; wrote his first version of The Sneetches, an anti-racist fable; and published an essay that critiques racist humor. During that same period, he recycled racist caricature in his books. In If I Ran the Zoo, protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to “the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and to the “African Island of Yerka” where he meets two stereotypically rendered Black men.
That Seuss is doing both racist anti-racist work at the same time can be confusing because many of us see racism as an “either/or”: people are either racist or not racist. Indeed, that’s how Seuss himself understood racism. In a June 1942 cartoon titled “What This Country Needs is a Good Mental Insecticide,” he draws a long line of men waiting to get inoculated against the “racial prejudice bug.” The insecticide goes in one ear, and the racist bug tumbles out the other. I wish we could fumigate racism from our minds, and applaud Seuss’s optimism. Unfortunately, racism is not a bug. It’s a feature. Racism is not aberrant. It’s ordinary. It’s embedded in institutions and in culture — such as the cartoons and books of Dr. Seuss.
It’s upsetting to learn that a beloved children’s author used racist caricature. So, many people — especially White people — seek explanations and offer excuses. In response to recent criticism, his grand-nephew Ted Owens has said of Seuss: “I know one thing for sure — I never saw one ounce of racism in anything he said, or how he lived his life, or what his stories were about.” Mr. Owens’ claim relies on perception and intent. But racism does not require either. People can perpetuate racism without intending to. I don’t think Seuss intended to. Because he was unaware of the degree to which his visual imagination was steeped in caricature, he recycled racist stereotypes even as he was also writing anti-racist parables. Dr. Seuss was the “woke” White guy who isn’t as woke as he thinks he is.
“Now, wait just a minute,” some may object. “Seuss was a man of his time. We should not impose contemporary standards on him or his work. People thought differently then.” But that is a gross oversimplification. All people in any given historical moment do not think about race in precisely the same way. As Robin Bernstein has shown in her work on nineteenth-century anti-racism, the range of available racial beliefs remains constant over time, but the distribution of those beliefs change. In the past and in the present, both extraordinary and perfectly ordinary people have opposed White supremacy. Similarly, both remarkable and unremarkable people have supported White supremacy. To claim that people 60 years ago were racist but people now are enlightened both naturalizes past racism as inevitable and implies that social change is a natural, ongoing march towards a brighter, fairer future. Yet, as we are reminded daily, our current president and his party are actively working against precisely such a future. Progress moves in fits and starts, makes gains and endures setbacks, and always requires people committed to making a positive difference.
Seuss can be part of this positive difference. His more progressive books — The Lorax (1971) or The Butter Battle Book (1984), to name two examples — might teach children about the need to care for the environment or to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Horton Hears a Who! could teach them to stand up for those who are targeted by bigots: the Whos’ size is an arbitrary mark of difference that could represent any such visible sign of human variance. As for the books featuring racist caricature, one option is to remove them from the curriculum. Another is to read them critically. With the guidance of a thoughtful educator, Seuss’s racist caricature can help young people understand that racism is not anomalous. It permeates the culture. Seeing this caricature can also let them know that it’s OK to be angry at art — that anger can in fact be a healthy response to work that demeans you.
We might also follow Roxane Gay’s advice. As she writes, “There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.” Gay is writing in the context of the current #MeToo movement, suggesting that we discard work built on the dehumanization of others. We could follow her advice by pushing Seuss aside and instead celebrating diverse books — doing what the NEA is doing in its program even if it (curiously) retains the Cat in the Hat as its mascot. Ishizuka-Stephens has assembled a great collection of “21 Books for an Inclusive Read Across America Day.” That’s an excellent place to start.
Wrapping yourself in an unreflective nostalgia for the art you grew up with may comfort you, but if that art denigrates women, or caricatures people of color, or otherwise harms minoritized communities, then you bear responsibility for the pain that this art inflicts. I realize this is a hard truth to face and that some who read this will — instead of facing themselves and acknowledging their responsibility — attack the messenger. Some may indulge in projection, locating in the messenger those faults that they refuse to admit in themselves. Others will find different strategies of denial, displacement, or dismissal. In so doing, they will continue to be part of the problem.
For those who prefer to be part of the solution, know that you need not abandon nostalgia. It’s OK to be nostalgic, as long as that nostalgia is what Svetlana Boym called “reflective nostalgia.” It “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt” (xviii). As Boym wrote, reflective nostalgia reminds us that “longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection” (The Future of Nostalgia 49-50).
So. Reflect. Dwell on those ambivalences. Develop your capacity to reflect. Activate your compassion.
And buy diverse books. Teach diverse books. Read diverse books.
When I was Brown’s age I also dabbled in drugs and alcohol. Even used Swisher Sweets to roll blunts from time to time. For that matter, I also did some shoplifting. Got caught one time by a security guard at the K-Mart on Astor Place who confiscated the stuff I’d stolen and yelled at me a bunch. So I suppose that, when an undercover officer came upon me and two friends smoking cigarettes and drinking beer on a park bench that night, he could have shot us dead and then the Times could have reported that we were no angels. We weren’t.
The NYT’s Michael Brown obit is shameful, but provides a helpful distillation of the insane double standard being applied here, where a kid’s possible youthful transgressions are held out to implicitly justify his cold-blooded killing at the hands of a police officer.