A lot of this story’s background was gleaned from a study on Dr. Seuss’s books in 2019, so in lieu of my regular TL;DR following the piece, I’ll be summarizing the study so you can better understand the impetus for Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision.
Yesterday, Dr. Seuss’s birthday opened with an announcement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises that they’re celebrating reading and “their mission to support all children and families with messages of hope and inclusion” by no longer printing six of Seuss’s books due to them “display[ing] people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Claiming it’s being done in an attempt to ensure their catalog “represents and supports all communities and families.”
The six books that no longer fit their social standards 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!
– The Cat’s Quizzer
They expanded upon their reasoning while talking to the Associated Press. Saying “The decision to cease publication and sales of the books was made last year after months of discussion. Dr. Seuss Enterprises listened and took feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics and specialists in the field as part of our review process. We then worked with a panel of experts, including educators, to review our catalog of titles.”
My mind jumped from their inane announcement to the incredulous thought of them even finding such a panel of individuals – and I caught myself wondering: did someone go headhunting for the people with the right qualifications, or did they just appear at their door one day? Where does someone find a panel of professionals educated on 2021-racism and how it may potentially affect children?
To the announcement, the mob reacted swiftly. It almost seemed like an instinctual reaction, visceral, as of they were under the influence of a feeling that only comes to the fore when [you feel like] your childhood is ‘under attack.’ But my attachment to the books was shallow; I just wanted to have a discussion, so I went for the best-worded argument I could find. Dr. Rebekah Fitzsimmons came to my rescue, and with a PhD from the University of Florida in children’s and young adult literature and culture, she had not only the most cogent argument but, the knowledge to back up the statements she made.
The books we share with our children matter. Books shape their world view and tell them how to relate to the people, places, and ideas around them. As grown-ups, we have to examine the worldview we are creating for our children, including carefully re-examining our favorites. Just because we loved something when we were kids, that is not enough reason to hand it off to our kids. If we want the world to be better, we have to commit to giving our kids better.Dr Rebekah Fitzsimmons
My response on Twitter was a short one, it being a medium made for black-and-white statements where nuance has to be thrown away in favor of 280 character soundbites, I said: “We cannot, because we’re suddenly ashamed of how we behaved, reach back and conform our past to fit our current societal norms… Hiding a painful history from view doesn’t erase the pain it caused. We, as a society, need to face it and learn from it.” And if given space I would have expanded: ‘Running from our racial disparities instead of confronting them head-on is one of the reasons today’s headlines look like they’ve been ripped from the front page of a 50-year-old newspaper. After the civil rights movement, our country stagnated, and we’ve had little to no racial progress.’ I was simply trying to convey the idea that, the worst parts of our history shouldn’t be hidden, they should be preserved and used as an opportunity to educate our children on the perils of our past and how to avoid them.
But Professor Fitzsimmons continued, insisting that to have a fully informed conversation about this, I had to look into the catalyst of the event – what made Dr. Seuss Enterprises even consider removing the books from print – so I did.
It turns out that Dr. Seuss Enterprises didn’t go searching for that esteemed panel I’d dreamt up. The panel was real and came to them – in the form of a 2019 study written by Ramón Stephens of UC San Diego and Katie Ishizuka of the Conscious Kid Library titled, The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books. With the study, Ramon Stephens and Katie Ishizuka intended to answer “How and to what extent are non-White characters depicted in Dr. Seuss’ children’s books?” The study itself is about 33 pages long, and the work they put in to get an accurate count was extensive, so instead of trying to summarize it in-story, I’ll put it in my usual tl;dr section following the piece.
The insight I garnered from the study was interesting, but it didn’t change my almost principled feelings on the estate’s decision. I don’t feel the books should be highlighted in a school library’s feature section, but to remove it from print is to remove a parent’s opportunity for a teaching moment. But it wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realized that wasn’t the point.
I decided to write about this piece simply to use it as an allegory of all other modern-day cancellations, the significant difference being: Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to get ahead of the opposition. They removed the opportunity for a parent to say that they read this to their child and the kid was offended. (Or offended-by-proxy, as often tends to happen these days.) But by doing it this way, by bowing to the cancel culture brigade preemptively, they’ve shown their fear. They’ve signaled to the woke wave that is currently kneecapping parts of our society that they’re right and that parts of our past should be snuffed out if they have even the potential of offending someone.
A lot of people have called this action a book burning but I feel what his estate is doing is worse. When Theodor Seuss Geisel was alive, the only amendment he made to any of his books was to the “Chinaman” in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Despite it being first published in 1937, it wasn’t until 1978 that his pigtail was gone, the yellow pigment removed from his skin and his name changed from “Chinaman” to “Chinese man.” It took Geisel 40 years to change his book, with him only saying “That’s the way things were 50 years ago…in later editions, he looks like an Irishman.”
What I’m worried about, is not what a parent decides to say when they have to sit down and explain racism to their child, what concerns me is the new calculous currently taking place in artist’s heads.
Dr. Seuss was trending in the news for nearly five days. Not because the audience was genuinely interested in it, but because both sides wanted to use it to manufacture a story about our rapidly-changing society. Right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro pointed to it as the most recent battle, against liberals, in the culture war. And left-wingers wanted to use Seuss’ WWII anti-Asian propaganda cartoons as proof of his racism – reason enough that all of his books should receive the same treatment.
And the latter is what I’m genuinely worried about. The fear of being canceled is going to do long-term damage to our society. And that’s an idea I’m passionate about, so I should have a piece about it up by the end of the month. But one of the major effects it’ll have is on artists, producers, and creators. An artist cares, not just about his art but, about his reputation – not his personal one – but what his work says about him.
Cancel culture fosters an environment where artists no longer create freely. Rather than dream, they’re forced to become futurists, envisioning the shifting societal norms thirty years in advance to ensure the things he makes today won’t be banned or get him canceled three decades from now.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, later known as Dr. Seuss was an incredibly prolific artist. His early work, comics of stingy Jew footballers and black men as gorillas, were first published in his college paper, the Jack O’ Lantern, in 1921. As he grew as a children’s book author, selling more than 200 million books before his death, he continued to create political cartoons, comics, and advertisements for newspapers, magazine companies, and the United States Government; often depicting marginalized groups in dehumanizing and degrading ways.
It was the juxtaposition between that behavior and the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center used his books as part of its Teaching Tolerance initiative that lead Ramón Stephens of UC San Diego and Katie Ishizuka of the Conscious Kid Library to initiate this study. The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books questions the claims that Seuss’s children’s book are anti-racist by inquiring “How and to what extent are non-White characters depicted in Dr. Seuss’ children’s books?
- In spite of Dr. Seuss’ extensive body of explicitly racist published works dehumanizing and degrading Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and people from other marginalized groups, many differentiate and defend the author’s children’s books as “promoting tolerance” and even “anti-racist.”
- Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance uses The Sneetches in their anti-racist curriculum for children in Kindergarten through fifth grade.
- *Summary in Progress*