And To Think That I Read It On Mulberry Street

Dr Seuss Books

Yesterday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises (the organization in charge of the Dr. Seuss literary legacy) announced that it would discontinue the publication of six iconic children’s books, because “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The six books are And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. The decision was made because Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) had used racial stereotypes in these books, portraying Blacks and Asians in demeaning ways.

It has been so long since I’ve read any of these books that I don’t really remember much about the illustrations or racial attitudes. But then, I am neither Black nor Asian. I assume that if he had done the same to Jews, I would remember it clearly, because I am a Jew.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” ~ George Santayana

Apparently, schools and libraries had been steering away from Dr. Seuss books for years, concerned about the negative images of non-Whites in some of them. And I certainly agree with such measures on the part of educators and parents. Young children don’t have filters. They accept as truth whatever is read to them, especially when the story is as charming, with fun rhythms, rhymes, and illustrations, like the Dr. Seuss books.

But removing these books from a publisher’s catalog has wider ramifications than the question of whether such books belong in a children’s reading list.

While the choice to discontinue publishing a book isn’t a case of censorship, this step by Dr. Seuss Enterprises is walking a fine line between a business decision and a dangerous rewriting of history. If these books, which were culturally so important for decades, are no longer published, when the current copies are worn out and thrown away, how will future generations know that they existed? As I wrote on a Facebook post today:

“If we don’t know what stereotypes look and sound like, how can we trace our history? And if we forget our history, if we don’t understand the circuitous way we arrived where we are, how are we to maintain a critical eye on where we are going? We can’t pick and choose what we like of the past if we want to work toward a better future.” ~ Sally Wiener Grotta

My mind turns to another iconic book – Huckleberry Finn – with its use of the “N” word in the name of a major character. No, I am not willing to write out the full name of the character, though he’s an important one in American literature, because the “N” word is a painful trigger for some of my readers, especially when said by a white woman. Nor am I interested in getting into the debate about Mark Twain’s use of the name. The fact is that, like Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain’s books are ingrained in American culture. To try to retroactively remove them from our history would be to whitewash what needs to be known, recognized, and understood about our past.

Though I don’t remember the stereotype slurs in the Dr. Seuss books, I have long known that he did propaganda cartoons during WWII, including vile racist representations of the Japanese. It was part of his wholehearted support of the war effort. But I’ve also known that he gave his full support to the civil rights movement. Neither fully represent the man or the artist, nor should they. He was a man, a human being, with more aspects to his personality than any of us will ever know.

Theodor Seuss Geisel failed often, succeeded often, and he made mistakes that today make us cringe, particularly because so many of us have loved him since our childhood. Is it our heroes’ fault that they fail us, or is it our fault for putting them on pedestals – and then getting upset when they fall from that great height?

And then there’s the hard to swallow aspect of our cringing that has to do with collective guilt. Dr. Seuss failed because he was part of the same culture that raised us. He thought nothing of using racist stereotypes because it was the accepted vernacular of the time. It’s specifically that easy acceptance, that mark of Cain on our country, that we must never allow to be forgotten.

I would like to see the Dr. Seuss books continue to be published in limited academic runs, with introductions that discuss why they are problematic and not suitable for children. Perhaps, they should have plain covers wrapped over the original cover illustrations to drive home the fact that they don’t belong in a children’s library. Let these special editions be used as examples in the study of such stereotyping, supporting lessons in awareness and critical thinking (as Huck Finn is). Those kinds of lessons may be hard to swallow for some of us, particularly if we have the kind of grandfatherly image of the author that we have of Dr. Seuss. But puncturing our illusions will make for a better future.

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Postscript: To help children better understand the wonderfully varied world we live in, libraries and parents would be wise to select books for children that feature fully realized diverse characters. In our Facebook discussion about the Dr. Seuss books, author Samuel R. Delany recommended Junoz Diaz’s book Island Born. I like the children’s stories published by Just Us Books. What children’s books would you recommend?

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Added: On Facebook, I had an interesting dialog with author/editor Eileen Gunn. With Eileen’s permission, here’s the discussion in which she made valid counter arguments to what I wrote above. 

Eileen: We don’t have to keep performing offensiveness (or watch others perform it) in order to remember it. That’s what museums are for, and history books, and, really, memories. I don’t think it would be an awful thing if we got to a place in time when everyone grew up and lived their lives with no memories of the casual, daily racist aggression that is still present in American life. It used to be a lot worse, and the removal of books and ads and TV shows that carry that poison is what has lessened it.

Sally: Eileen, I’ve been struggling with the various nuances of this (and of the whole subject). As we watch holocaust deniers (and worse… holocaust celebrators) proliferate or at least become more vocal, I feel we have to be careful to not let any history become lost or forgotten. To protect the future, and hopefully create a better one, we must encourage the teaching of critical thinking and awareness. And that requires that we keep the examples of casual racism and everyday demeaning of others available for study — and only for study. Not for entertainment, and especially not for children.

Eileen: Sally, of course. I have not heard any indication that that is happening. Have you looked into the Internet Archive? The mammoth archives of newspapers? The Strand Bookstore? Tens of thousands of books on the Black experience in the United States? I know you have an interest in preserving the evidence that historians use, but I see no indication that this is going away. The evidence of casual racism is so embedded in our society that most white people don’t even see it. A time-traveler looking back would be horrified. (I hope.)

Sally: Yes. That’s true. It’s just that Dr. Seuss was so ingrained in our culture, that the casual racism of it, delivered to children… it just feels like something that needs to be available as an example rather than just be mentioned in a history book.

Eileen: There are probably tens of thousands of copies of it out there, and those are just the copies remaining, that have not been eaten by 3-year-olds. It’s not selling very well, and new copies would probably not go directly into the historical record with the other thousands, but would instead be given to children and would help them learn that there are good-quality people and bad-quality people; the good quality people deserve to succeed and the bad-quality people fail by their very nature. The children might also receive some suggestions as to whether they and their friends are good or bad quality. We don’t give children historical diseases, just so we will remember what they were like. Why would we deliberately infect them with racism?

Eileen: Thank you for making me part of your discussion there. I would add one thing that occurred to me while reading the end of your blog post, which is that books go out of print all the time, and that many of the books that go out of print are culturally significant. Really, every book is a result of the writer’s prejudices and fears, the things they love and the things they hate.
What is special about these Dr. Seuss books is that many white children read them and, now adults, feel nostalgic about them, so once again, it is white people’s feelings that are being taken into consideration here. I don’t hear much in the way of an outcry from people of color to save these particular Dr. Seuss books from falling our of print, as examples of yesterday’s racism.
And also, I don’t hear the ghost of Dr. Seuss suggesting that books of his remain in print so that they can be held up as examples of racism, even in a historical context. I doubt very much his estate would agree to that.

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