Dr. Seuss, Overreactions, and How We Handle Historical Offenses

March 12, 2021  —  Tagged as: cancel-culture

When I was a kid, I had a thick, light blue anthology of Dr. Seuss stories that I reread often. I have a lot of fond memories of the stories, ranging from the renowned Green Eggs and Ham to the lesser-known but excellent 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. I’d heard scattered criticism of Seuss stories later in life, but didn’t think they’d come up in my adult life in any significant way. Well, things change. Last week, six Seuss books landed in the middle of the raging culture war. And like many culture war squabbles, it’s complicated.

On Tuesday March 2nd, the birthday of Dr. Seuss himself, the estate that manages his books announced that they had decided to stop publication of six of his books. The statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises explained that the books were being withdrawn “because they portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The decision didn’t come entirely out of the blue, as critics have criticized potentially offensive imagery in the books for years, but the abrupt nature and timing of the announcement was surprising. March 2nd is also Read Across America Day, which has been historically linked to Dr. Seuss, and observers were quick to note that President Biden’s proclamation of the holiday this year went against the tradition of his recent predecessors by not mentioning Seuss at all. This also comes on the heels of a Virginia school district making headlines for intentionally turning the focus of Read Across America Day from Seuss to more diverse books. As it turns out, Biden and Loudoun County Public Schools were following the lead of the National Education Association, which runs Read Across America Day and has been disassociating the day from Seuss for several years.

The combination of these events, particularly the withdrawal of the six books, stoked a furious backlash. The decision to stop publishing books is a heated issue to begin with, and even more so when the books carry the weight of decades of fond childhood nostalgia.

I’ve watched the story unfold over the past week, and I think discontinuing the books was a terrible decision. But the situation is complicated, and this is one of those cases where I think both sides of the argument have merit but are off-base in ways worth mentioning.

First, let’s be precise about what’s happened. Many headlines assert that the left “cancelled Dr. Seuss” or “erased Dr. Seuss.” I understand the sentiment and concur there’s some truth to it, but I consider this phrasing an oversimplification of what’s happened. So far, the six books in question have been successfully cancelled, not Seuss himself—this is a crucial distinction. There are plenty of activists who are interested in cancelling Seuss wholesale for his alleged transgressions, but they have not succeeded in making their more extreme views mainstream. That’s not to say they won’t succeed in the future, and there’s certainly cause to be worried. But for now, the majority of lefties I see have condemned the imagery in the six discontinued books and have celebrated the decision to discontinue them, but have also continued to enjoy the other Seuss books. And while I disagree with Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to withdraw the six books, they are not trying to cancel Dr. Seuss himself. The last thing Dr. Seuss Enterprises wants is discontinue all the books and shut themselves down in the process. They’re simply trying to cover their ass by removing controversy and to make the other books continue to sell. At least in the mainstream, Seuss’ other works continue to be beloved.

The pointed omissions from Read Across America Day have more grounds to be labeled as “cancelling” Seuss himself, as they are attempting to take a holiday once linked to Seuss and divorce it from his legacy, declining to credit his achievements in the way that celebrations of the day had previously done. It’s worth mentioning that the efforts to shift Read Across America Day away from Seuss are not at all new: the National Education Association, the organization which runs Read Across America Day, had started its shift towards diversity and away from Seuss as early as 2017. Neither Biden nor Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools were making an independent decision in omitting Seuss from Read Across America Day, but were following the NEA’s lead. The NEA’s partnership with Seuss Enterprises ended before the 2019 holiday, and the NEA has focused on a non-Seuss-centric Read Across America Day for some time now: “NEA recognizes the need to work with a more diverse array of organizations and publishers to fulfill this need [for diverse books], and the Read Across America brand is now one that is independent of any one particular book, publisher, or character.” This reasoning sounds unremarkable; after all, it’s not a bad thing for Read Across America to be about a variety of books rather than focused on a single author’s work. The decision, however, was reportedly directly motivated by criticisms of racial depictions in Seuss’ work, and resulted in a severing of a 20-year partnership with Seuss Enterprises. They had been partnered since the genesis of Read Across America Day in the late 90s. That’s a pretty big deal. I still wouldn’t call it an outright cancellation, but it was a step in that direction.

Next let’s address the allegations of racism in Seuss’ cancelled books, and separate the reasonable accusations from the unreasonable ones. Some have lambasted all of these accusations as oversensitivity and asserted that there’s nothing wrong with the books in question, and I do think it’s a bit more complicated than that. I’ve taken a look at the example images, and it’s true that some of them are a bit offensive. Some do include depictions of racial stereotypes and caricatures that are considered unacceptable today. For example, take this page from If I Ran the Zoo, which portrays residents of the “African island of Yerka” as open-mouthed monkey-like creatures wearing grass skirts. Or this page from the same book that depicts “helpers who wear their eyes at a slant,” or Asian people as servants, carrying a caged animal on their heads atop which McGrew stands proudly with a gun.

You can’t deny that this stuff doesn’t look great in the light of modern-day society, particularly in the context of a book for impressionable small children. The greater question, however, is how to handle that.

While I do agree with some of the examples of offensive imagery, like the ones I’ve mentioned above, many left-wing activists aren’t ending the argument there. And that’s where things go off the rails. When discussing problematic elements of Seuss’ work, activists often cite a study called “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.” CNN’s coverage of the controversy also cites this paper and pulls out a few examples; some seem reasonable, like the ones I’ve mentioned above, but some seem…insane. The bit that got me was this characterization of one of the study’s arguments: “The study also argues that since the majority of human characters in Dr. Seuss’ books are White, his works—inadvertently or not—center Whiteness and thus perpetuate White supremacy.” I couldn’t believe what I was reading, so I went to the study itself to check if the statement had been exaggerated or misinterpreted in some way. Nope. Right there on page 14: “White supremacy is seen through the centering of Whiteness and White characters, who comprise 98% (2,195 characters) of all characters.” Holy shit. Do you hear what that’s saying? Because most characters are white, the books are perpetuating white supremacy. Got it. So is Crazy Rich Asians promoting Asian supremacy because most of the characters are Asian? Even if the rest of the examples in the paper were airtight (which they’re not), this one argument does so much damage to the credibility of the “study.”

Another off-the-wall allegation from the paper is the idea that the Cat in the Hat is racist, quoting another paper from English professor Philip Nel. Nel seems to be the originator of the racism claim and is often the only source cited to support it. Although it’s true that some elements of the Cat in the Hat were inspired by an elevator operator Seuss had met in his publisher’s office, a black woman named Annie Williams, there is no evidence that the inspiration had any relation whatsoever to her race. Judith and Neil Morgan confirm in the biography Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel that Seuss was inspired by the elevator and its operator; she’s described as a “small, stooped woman…wearing a leather half-glove and a secret smile.” Nel asserts in the opening paragraph of his book (Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books) that the biographers describe her as “an elegant, petite woman who wore white gloves and a secret smile,” which is not what they said in the actual biography. Perhaps he is looking at a different source for the biographers’ comments. But the reference to “white gloves” is simply factually incorrect based on what is included in the biography, which clearly describes a “leather half-glove.” Nel appears to be playing fast and loose with this fact in order to better fit the narrative that the Cat, who wears white gloves, is a close mirror to Williams. The biographers depict her as one of many inspiration points rather than a singular basis of the character. Nel notes that the biographers do not mention Williams’ name or her race, which is true, but that’s not surprising or unusual given that they are describing a chance encounter with a stranger who happened to give Seuss an idea. Many critics of The Cat in the Hat cite Nel’s statement that Seuss “gave [the Cat] Mrs. Williams’s white gloves, her sly smile, and her color.” But this appears to be speculation, not fact. It’s true that Seuss based some elements of the Cat on Williams, implied to be her smile and possibly her gloves (which, again, were leather half-gloves, not white gloves like the Cat’s). I found no evidence that her race or “color” had any bearing on the fact that the Cat ended up as black-and-white. As far as I can tell, the Cat could just as easily have ended up orange. The Cat’s face, by the way, is quite clearly white.

Nel and the authors of the more recent “study” also claim that the Cat’s appearance and role plays off blackface and minstrelsy: “The Cat’s umbrella (which he uses as a cane) and outrageous fashion sense link him to Zip Coon, that foppish ‘northern dandy negro.’ His bright red floppy tie recalls the polka-dotted ties of blackfaced Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936) and of blackfaced Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939).” …Yeah, and this photo of my grandpa is linked to Stalin because they both have mustaches. Talk about a stretch. This is a ridiculously flimsy theory, and the studies offers no evidence of racism beyond speculation and out-of-nowhere associations that say more about the authors’ biases than that of Dr. Seuss. Regardless of the Cat’s origins, zero children are reading The Cat in the Hat and thinking “oh yeah, this cat reminds me of black people.” If you’re thinking that, it’s probably a you problem.

So let’s be clear: that shit’s crazy, and should not be confused with more reasonable concerns. Let’s put aside the more deluded accusations for now and focus on the reasonable ones. I understand why Seuss Enterprises is uncomfortable publishing a book that features “slanty-eyed helpers” and half-naked, monkeylike creatures as Africans. But it’s important to remember that Seuss was a product of his time, and on the scale of historical racism, this is comparatively mild stuff. Are you going to discontinue every old book or movie that contains historical offensiveness? That’s a whole lot of history erased.

Seuss also changed and grew over time. Other pieces have extensively covered the personal journey of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss’ real name), and I won’t dive into it here, but the short story is that he learned and evolved. He himself went back and edited some early racial depictions in his books—And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street originally depicted an Asian character with yellow skin and referred to him as a “Chinaman.” Geisel changed the skin color and replaced “Chinaman” with “Chinese man” (at one point it was also “Chinese boy”). Ironically, this was not enough to save the book from being one of the six discontinued due to the remaining illustration of the Chinese man in traditional garb with chopsticks and rice (a stereotypical depiction, sure, but not one I would have considered particularly offensive). Regardless of its fate in 2021, that book and the changes to it reflect Geisel’s growth over the course of his life. Later books like The Star Bellied Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who! clearly emphasized kindness and inclusion. And then there’s Yertle the Turtle with its anti-authoritarian theme, and The Lorax, famous for its environmentalism. You’d be hard-pressed to argue that Seuss’ ultimate impact on children’s literature was a negative one.

With all this said, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Dr. Seuss Enterprises and confront the fact that a few of the images in the Seuss books can reasonably be considered offensive, and that the books are being read by young children. It’s understandable that it makes them uncomfortable. There’s a whole lot more pressure on content in books for young kids, who don’t yet understand the context, as opposed to books for fully-grown adults who can make decisions and infer context on their own. How do we handle this?

I’d argue that discontinuing the books is the worst possible course of action. I agree with Jack Shafer of Politico and Cathy Young of The Week that scrubbing our literary history of any trace of racism isn’t a productive solution. We’re much better off acknowledging and discussing historical racism and learning from it. I came across a post on the Nashville Public Library’s blog from the perspective of a mother sharing some Dr. Seuss books with her biracial (half-black, half-white) children. The mother reads the books with her children, and when a questionable racial depiction comes up in the books, the mother asks her children questions and prompts them to think about it. Whether you agree with the mother’s conclusions or not, I think this is the right way to approach sharing content with your children that you believe could contain bad influences. It’s impossible to shield a child from every possible instance of historical prejudice, so it’s better to teach them how to interpret and handle it. A child’s ultimate views on race will not be defined by one picture book. They’ll be shaped by their parents, their teachers, their peers, and their environment.

With that said, if Seuss Enterprises truly believed that the images contained in the six books were too much of a bad influence on young minds to continue printing them, discontinuing the books is not the only option. If they were insistent on removing the racist imagery, why not simply release revised editions that replaced the questionable sections? As I mentioned, Seuss himself went back and made edits to remove elements he later realized could be offensive. The truly offensive examples are few and isolated enough that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to replace them. It might be tougher to excise the naughty bits from a book like If I Ran the Zoo, which has multiple offenses, but more than doable. Why wouldn’t they take this route? Who knows. My speculation would be that it goes back to profit. It’s likely no coincidence that the six discontinued books are some of the least popular from the Seuss collection. After all, The Cat in the Hat has been loudly accused of racism too, but it’s not among the discontinued. Revised editions also cost money and time. My bet is that Seuss Enterprises felt pressure from activists and decided to cut loose the least lucrative options that also fit the bill of offensiveness. Social justice points and cleaning house: two birds with one stone.

But a decision to stop printing the books means that future generations will be deprived of these six stories, which may not be as universally known as Green Eggs and Ham but were nevertheless beloved by many. Just because a book contains a mildly offensive page doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value, or that it should be summarily disavowed and abandoned. And then there’s the historical and academic ramifications—like it or not, Seuss was a monumental figure in children’s literature, and his works should be preserved for reference at the least, if not for their narrative value.

Ironically, Seuss Enterprises includes this sentence in their LinkedIn description: “Ted Geisel once said he never wanted to license his characters to anyone who would ‘round out the edges’ – a guiding principle at Dr. Seuss Enterprises.” Ouch. Pretty sure that’s not a guiding principle anymore. Forget “rounding out” the edges, they just threw some edges out the window.

If I was disappointed by Seuss Enterprises’ decision to withdraw the books, that was small potatoes compared to the reactions of other companies. Shortly after the announcement, I had already seen the books selling for hundreds of dollars on Ebay. I texted my parents to see if they still had some old copies. But minutes later, I saw the news that copies of the books were being removed from Ebay. Multiple Twitter users posted emails they received rejecting listings of the discontinued books: “We had to remove your listing because it didn’t follow our Offensive material policy. Listings that promote or glorify hatred, violence, or discrimination aren’t allowed.” Ebay representatives confirmed to the media that they were “sweeping [their] marketplace to remove these items.” We’re talking about Dr. Seuss here. The books may contain an offensive illustration or two, but we’re talking about picture books. And it’s one thing for a book to be discontinued by the managers of the estate, but for Ebay to ban used copies of the books from resale on their platform? That’s deeply messed up. Some were quick to point out that far more offensive books were listed on the platform, like Mein Kampf. Ebay responded that Hitler’s book was also banned, and that they were “constantly evaluating and making improvements to ensure prohibited items remain off eBay.” But Mein Kampf is just the easiest example to reach for: there are thousands of books more offensive than these six picture books, and they’re still selling on Ebay with no restrictions.

A quick search reveals that some copies of the six Seuss books are managing to slip through the cracks on Ebay, but it’s disturbing that Ebay took it upon itself to ban the books in the first place. That’s miles beyond what Seuss Enterprises did, which was more or less just sending the books out of print. Ebay is supposed to be a place where you can sell rare, used copies of out-of-print books. Apparently not these. And it doesn’t feel realistic that Ebay truly felt that these depictions were “harmful” enough to warrant banning. It feels disturbingly political. The Seuss books were banned for offensiveness when more offensive books were not, seemingly because they became a hot-button political issue and Ebay decided to take a side. Not a great sign.

New booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble stopped selling the six books immediately, but Amazon at least continues to allow used copies to be sold. Meanwhile, even libraries have come under fire for having copies of the books in circulation or for taking too long to review them to make a decision about their circulation. Resisting censorship, supporting freedom of expression, and preserving books regardless of content are core values of librarianship, but some librarians also feel a conflicting obligation to prevent the spread of potentially racist content, so libraries are divided on the issue. As the Connecticut State Librarian put it, “Like many other institutions, libraries also wrestle with this question of continually reassessing our past, as they try to balance the tenets of freedom of speech and censorship with a call to not harm others.” Libraries across the country are making individual decisions on what to do about the books, and the conclusions vary. Chicago Public Library will be pulling the six books out of circulation temporarily to evaluate them after they go through the current hold list. At least one Colorado library is pulling the six books permanently, as is the Portsmouth Public Library system in Virginia. Many libraries are still evaluating. I was relieved to see that multiple libraries have firmly decided to keep the books in circulation, with New York Public Library and Denver Public Library both making statements that affirm their principles. Denver Public Library reiterated its commitment to the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read principles, which express commitment to viewpoint diversity, freedom of expression, and the marketplace of ideas. The principles also note that “it is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author,” and that “the answer to a ‘bad’ idea is a good one” (as opposed to censoring the bad idea). Reading that, at least, gives me hope for the future of librarianship.

My lefty friends keep telling me that this isn’t a big deal, that no one is trying to cancel Dr. Seuss and that discontinuing his less enlightened books is important for progress. I get the idea, but withdrawal and subsequent banning of books for minor offenses is really not a good precedent. The situation is poised to slide further, just as it did when discontinuation of the books turned into an Ebay ban. Dr. Seuss isn’t canceled yet—but if the overreaction to the content in these six books is any indication, his legacy is anything but safe. I can only hope that more people, libraries, and companies recognize that discontinuing or banning entire books isn’t a solution for minor historical offense. We’ll only learn from it if we talk about it—not if we try to erase it.

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