Is Dr. Seuss worse than Hitler? I didn’t think so, before, but I’ve been hearing things lately that have caused me to doubt myself. Obviously, he wasn’t blatant about it. He didn’t write To Think that I Signed a Petition to Keep You from Buying a Home on Mulberry Street or Mr. Braun’s a Jew, are You?; but, there is some controversy over his illustrations. I read a lot of Seuss as a child and I couldn’t remember any racist illustrations; but, that’s because I wasn’t reading newspaper ads in the 1920’s (I would go straight to the sports section to see how Babe Ruth was hitting). I took a look at some of those ads and HOLY MARY MOTHER OF GOD IN HEAVEN!
I can imagine those drawings are like a punch in the gut to some people… just as it is a punch in the gut for me, a tribal member, to see a W. C. Fields shooting American Indians from a train with light music playing in the background or when I hear Diana Krall try to sing.
But, what about his children’s books? Well…
Pretty harsh, eh? Like having dinner in a Chinese restaurant with your grandfather who is pretty sure he is doing a spot-on impersonation of the waiter. (Tip: If this happens, do NOT eat the soup they bring you) “Chinese” in those drawings are reduced to a pig-tail, coolie-hat and eyes that look like a backslash on your computer keyboard. They have been reduced to symbols.
Those of us from earlier times see unintended racism in books and movies and we don’t call it “racism”. We refer to it as “hard to watch”… just like we refer to our wives after they hit us with a piece of asphalt in a parking lot for bringing our grandfather to a Chinese restaurant as “spirited”.
Everybody was a racist back then. It meant that you were part of a special club that included others that looked and sounded like you. You didn’t literally meet, in most cases, because some of your fellow club members were total dicks. I remember when my parents gave me a lecture on why there shouldn’t be interracial marriages. It was a well-reasoned and ridiculous argument that would’ve had a bigger impact if they weren’t an interracial couple themselves.
So, was Dr. Seuss a racist, or just “hard to watch”? Well, the internet is full of quotes from Dr. Seuss. The most racist of them is “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!” which, I’ve been told, is an indictment of Pancho Villa. Usually, when given several decades to make his racism known, a true racist does not keep his cards very close to his chest.
The theme of The Sneetches is the stupidity of racism, only with belly-stars instead of pigment and eye-shape. Sylvester McMonkey McBean makes a fortune off of the racism and ignorance of the silly birds… and I’d imagine his daughter Ivanka does as well. You might have noticed that Seuss dedicated Horton Hears a Who to a Japanese friend. That book was written as an apology to the Japanese-Americans whose incarceration he’d advocated during wartime. Were they “even” after that? Well, they were after the fruit basket…
Those who hold the rights to the Dr. Seuss books have every right to hold them back until they figure out what to do with them. It might be as simple as erasing some of the offensive images or replacing them with characters from the television show Boston Legal. They also have the right to continue printing them… that’s what makes capitalism the second best economic system in the world. They have to decide if offending some non-whites is worth keeping the books intact. Personally, I think that, if Dr. Seuss were alive today, he’d be okay with removing the offending images. The philosophy behind his books was inclusion after all.
Will I still read Dr. Seuss to my two boys? No. But, that’s because they are in their twenties and it just makes them uncomfortable when I read them children’s books. It intrigues me, though, to see where we will go with this. Progress comes in fits and starts and sometimes the starts are way more interesting than the fits…