Is Dr. Seuss, the man who wrote and illustrated many of the most beloved children’s books of the 20th century, actually racist? To millions of grownups who were raised on Seuss books such as The Cat In The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and Horton Hears A Who, the question itself may seem puzzling at first.
But earlier this week, a librarian at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, elementary school rejected a gift of Dr. Seuss books from Melania Trump, telling the 47-year-old wife of Donald Trump in an open letter, “Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”
What was the librarian, Liz Phipps Soeiro, talking about? Why are some critics and scholars now turning against Dr. Seuss for, they say, perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes of both black and Asian people? According to those critics, there may be good reasons.
Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Geisel, died in 1991 at the age of 87 with more than 60 children’s books to his credit. He started using the pen name “Dr. Seuss” as early as 1927, but it wasn’t until 30 years later when he was already 53-years-old that he published the book that made him a worldwide bestselling author and celebrity, The Cat in the Hat.
The Cat in the Hat quickly sold more than 1 million copies and remains the ninth-highest-selling children’s book of all time, though it is topped by Seuss’s own Green Eggs And Ham, which comes in at No. 4. In fact, six of the 20 bestselling kids’ books of all time were penned by Dr. Seuss, according to the industry trade magazine Publisher’s Weekly.
But before Geisel became world famous for his books, he was a cartoonist whose work often exploited racial imagery and stereotypes that would be considered universally offensive today, and even in their time were clearly intended to demean the racial and ethnic groups he portrayed in the illustrations.
For example, the cartoons at this link and at this link now in the collection of the University of California at San Diego, cruelly portray black people as cannibals — who are also infested by bugs (“Flit” was the name of a then-popular insect repellent).
Then there was the cartoon at this link that portrayed a Japanese man with, in the description of Dartmouth University researcher Hannah Cho, “a pig-nose, glasses, slanted eyes,” a widespread stereotype of Asian people at the time Geisel drew the cartoon in 1942, a stereotype that, Cho wrote, “fuels the loss of the individuality of the Japanese people.”
But the stereotyped racist imagery in Dr. Seuss was not confined to his editorial cartooning, according to some critics.
In his book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Kansas State University Professor Philip Nel argues that, according to an account in the Atlantic magazine, “Seuss’s depiction of the (Cat in the Hat) character was based on racial stereotypes and inspired by traditions of blackface minstrel entertainment.”
Other researchers have agreed. Katie Ishizuka-Stephens of the Conscious Kids Library in her 43-page paper entitled “Rethinking Dr. Seuss for NEA’s Read Across America Day: Racism Within Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books & The Case for Centering Diverse Books,” also says that the “Cat” character was meant to represent a stereotypical black “minstrel” who “plays as ‘entertainer’ to the white family — in whose house he doesn’t belong.”
Read Ishizuka-Stephens’ entire essay by downloading the PDF file at this link.
Ishizuka-Stephens says that her grandparents — Americans of Japanese descent — lost jobs and were ultimately sent to internment camps during World War II, and that the stereotypes perpetuated in Seuss’s cartoons helped inflame the anti-Japanese bigotry that led directly to their imprisonment, along with thousands of other American citizens with Japanese heritage during that era.
The researcher surveyed 50 Dr. Seuss books for her study, finding that of the human characters depicted by Geisel, an overwhelming 98 percent were white, while only 2 percent could be identified as people of color who are “almost always presented as subservient, and peripheral to, the white characters.”
“Many people are unaware that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes,” wrote Phipps Soeiro in her open letter to Melanie Trump. She named If I Ran a Zoo and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street as containing specific examples of “the racist mockery in his art.”
While defenders of the Dr. Seuss books say that Geisel later came to regret at least some of the earlier racism in his cartoons, filmmaker Ron Lamothe who directed the documentary The Political Dr. Seuss isn’t certain.
“I wish I knew for sure,” the documentary filmmaker said in an interview. “The only evidence I have comes from his biographers, who told me that years later — although still recognizing its necessity due to the war — he was regretful about some of his cartoons for PM and some of the propaganda work he did.”
[Featured Image By Vince Bucci/Getty Images]