I have been in love with Dr. Seuss since childhood, and happily raised my own children on his lyrical work. Much of his imagery is delightful because it is so exaggerated; some of it is racist. If you want to understand why the company that manages his content has ceased to publish some of his books, you need that context.
Much of what I will share today comes from The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss: A Visual Biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel, by Charles D. Cohen. As a Seuss fan, I purchased this book years ago and have vastly enjoyed it since it includes many images beyond the ones that appear in his children’s books, including student drawings, advertising illustrations, and political cartoons. If you want to know more about Ted Geisel, the man behind Dr. Seuss, that book is the place to start.
Was Ted Geisel racist? Definitely.
Geisel was immersed in his times. He published drawings in the 1920s and 30s that were highly offensive. (I will not publish these caricatures on my blog, but you can see some of them here.) They start with jokes about how stingy Scots are, and continue with big-nosed Jews and squinty and slanty-eyed Chinamen. An illustration of two imagined boxers — “Highball Thomson wins from Kid Sambo by a shade” — is impossible to view without perceiving the boxers as gorilla-like. He published illustrations making fun of slave auctions with extremely offensive drawings of big-lipped Africans, some of which include the n-word. You cannot see or read these images without being offended.
As Cohen writes:
Ted’s eventual break with the routine use of stereotypes in his work might be underappreciated without a careful examination of the humor at the expense of African and American blacks during his youth. The greatest challenge to overcome was the widespread acceptance of jokes about this group.The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss, p. 208
There is no question that Geisel was immersed in a racist culture and that the racism of the times emerged in his drawings. His talent, as all of his readers know, comes from drawing comically exaggerated caricatures of humans and creatures. When this is a furry animal, it’s delightful. When it’s a Jew, an Arab, a Chinese person, or a Black man, it’s horrifying. While it may not have been driven by hate, it embodied the racist attitudes of the time in a way that now seems outrageous.
Geisel made amends in the war years
It may be hard to reconcile these past attitudes with what we know of Dr. Seuss now — as a champion of environmentalism and wonder. And anyone who has read The Sneetches knows that it is a powerful, vivid allegory about the stupidity of prejudice.
And it’s not just the books. During World War II, Seuss published political cartoons ridiculing anti-semitic and racist attitudes of politicians including Georgia’s Governor Talmadge, along with cartoons publicizing the government’s unwillingness to tap Black labor in the war effort. They are a step in the right direction. But they are still problematic — the first cartoon below references a figure of speech that uses the n-word.
And the anti-Asian racism remained, including a political cartoon of a grinning Japanese horde plotting to overthrow the government. This again reflected the racist attitudes of the war years.
Is it time to cancel Dr. Seuss?
No, it’s not. Dr. Seuss has made a major and mostly positive impact on our culture. Like many artists, his past is flawed. We need to acknowledge those flaws and their context to understand him as whole human being. It is still possible to read his books to children, even knowing this past, and share their positive message.
Of course, some of the books themselves also include racist caricatures. And it is within the power of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that controls the rights associated with those books, to determine what do about that. Here is the statement from their web site.
Statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises
Today, on Dr. Seuss’s Birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises celebrates reading and also our mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.
We are committed to action. To that end, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: 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. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.
Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.
I loved some of those books, especially On Beyond Zebra! and If I Ran the Zoo. But if I were reading one to a child now, I’d certainly be chagrined to see exaggerated caricatures of Black people, Arabs, and Asian people grinning and strutting around the pages. I wasn’t sensitive enough to those images before — I certainly am now.
I think Dr. Seuss Enterprises took the right action. They didn’t cancel all the books, just the problematic ones. You can still find used copies of the ones they’ve stopped printing. And if you choose to do so, you can stop reading Dr. Seuss, although I’d find that an overreaction.
I’m not comfortable with Dr. Seuss’ heirs continuing to spread exaggerated racial caricatures, so I think they did the right thing.