Dr. Seuss and the process of accountability


creativecommons.org A child poses with a Cat in the Hat construction project at an event honoring Dr. Seuss’ birthday at the San Jose Public Library in 2007.

By page 13 of “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street,” things have gotten quite outlandish as our young hero Marco imagines increasingly complex situations to report back to his father. He’s already dreamed up a reindeer pulling a charioteer, a mayoral parade float and an airplane flying low enough to festoon both parties with confetti. This page is different, however; one of Marco’s three new additions to his comedy of errors is a “Chinaman who eats with sticks.” The figure is illustrated with yellow skin, a long braid, a bowl of rice with chopsticks and traditional geta shoes, which are actually Japanese. After being in circulation for 31 years, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced two weeks ago that the book would no longer be printed.

“And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street” is one of six books (also including “If I Ran the Zoo,” “McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!,” Scrambled Eggs Super!” and “The Cat’s Quizzer”) discontinued following concerns over racist imagery, including the depiction of African individuals as monkeys and bright yellow Asian caricatures. Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens published a study in 2019 entitled “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” which examined 50 of Dr. Seuss’ works and reported that out of the 2,240 human characters in these books, only 45 (or 2%) were people of color. Of these 45, all were male. Furthermore, 43 of these 45 characters aligned with the definition of Orientalism.

The study illustrated another racist example from “If I Ran the Zoo”: “The three (and only three) Asian characters who are not wearing conical hats are carrying a White male on their heads… The White male is not only on top of, and being carried by, these Asian characters, but he is also holding a gun, illustrating dominance. The text beneath the Asian characters describes them as ‘helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant’ from ‘countries no one can spell.’”

Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Seuss Geisel, has a history of racism extending beyond his famous works. As a college student at Dartmouth, he published cartoons of black boxers as gorillas and referred to black characters with the n-word. He also, “… drew caricatures of Jewish people with oversize noses causing chaos everywhere they went by demanding lower prices,” according to Vox.com.

The announcement that the six books would be discontinued came on March 2, which, ironically, is Geisel’s birthday and “Read Across America Day.” The books do not have to be pulled from circulation, meaning that the decision to keep or remove the books from inventory lies with individual libraries and bookstores.

The announcement immediately sparked a massive controversy. Fox News published an article about Ishizuka’s study titled, “Progressives began effort to cancel Dr. Seuss in 2017,” featuring a comment section full of parents who thought their children would be “… (more uncomfortable) reading fables of transgender Black/Japanese characters…”

Another comment, from the user “Be.Kind.Not.Ugly” read, “‘Cat In The Hat’, or ‘My Two Mommies Used To Be Daddies’. Yeah, we’re sticking with Dr. Seuss.”

Arguments have also been made citing Seigel’s rather “progressive” comics made during World War II, which decried Nazi policy and American Isolationism, as proof that the author’s real intent was anti-racist. Others have emphasized the sentiments of tolerance and harmony in books like “The Lorax” and “The Sneetches.” But you can’t “cancel out” racism with a story about furry creatures accepting each other whether they have stars on their bellies or not. This isn’t a system of pluses and minuses; when something racist is printed and widely distributed to children, the principles can, and often will, stick, even if it’s unconscious.

A study by Andrew Scott Baron and Mahzarin R. Banaji published in 2006 found that children begin forming racial biases around three years old, and these biases can be cemented by age seven. Fox News argued that because “Mein Kampf” is still being printed, Seigel’s six books should also remain part of the American literary ethos. Fox failed to make the very important distinction that no kindergarten teacher in their right mind would present a toddler with “Mein Kampf” during reading hour, but might certainly consider “If I Ran the Zoo.” “Mein Kampf” is largely regarded as a piece of violent, extremist literature, and is not considered a work from which you can derive any sort of moral value.

This is what the process of accountability looks like. Contrary to the beliefs of Fox News, Seigel is not being canceled. The vast majority of his works will remain part of the literary canon, and his whimsical stories will continue to delight generations of children to come. But his racist imagery and language will be removed from the hands of those same children. Accountability may not be a pretty process, and no, we cannot discount Seigel’s racism because of his other, more wholesome content or because of his status as an American darling.

The best way to honor Seigel’s legacy is not to paint a false image of his history, but to condemn his blatant racism while also acknowledging his imaginative genius. Simply stopping production for six books is not enough to properly address Seigel’s racism, but it’s a concrete step in the right direction. And given that The American Library Association estimates that over 20,000 new children’s books are being published every year in the United States alone, I somehow doubt that the removal of six books will leave tiny tots at a loss for reading material.