I CANNOT condone censorship, and I can’t imagine the world of sanitised literature that we seem to be heading towards as we grapple with how to handle racism. After much pressure from well-meaning leftists who want to eradicate racism, Dr Seuss’s publishing company recently announced it will no longer print six of the famous children author’s books.
For young, pre-Roald Dahl readers, Dr Seuss is undoubtedly the best-known children’s author. Now, he has been deemed a racist. It’s impossible to deny stereotypic and even prejudicial or racist imagery in his work, but to deem someone a racist is a very serious and difficult charge to make in my book unless that person’s art and expression clearly defines the person and his work.
With Dr Seuss, we have damning evidence of racist imagery, but we also have a body of work that has been deemed important to the canon of children’s literature. It was not unusual for many people – even former black president Barack Obama – to say, “Everything you need to know about in life you can find in a Dr Seuss book.” That includes the subject of prejudice.
In If I Ran the Zoo, one of the books that will no longer be in print, Dr Seuss proves guilty of having questionable or racist pictures. In one scene, a group of visitors to the zoo gaze through bars at an animal in a cage. The visitors are all black. To someone not looking for racism, they look like shadows, but to the discerning mind looking at a reflection of the picture, they are black men behind bars. In another picture, Chinese men portrayed as stereotypic “coolies” carry off an animal bound for the zoo.
As a librarian, I would use this book to teach an age-appropriate lesson on prejudice, stereotypic imagery and racism to first or second graders. I would also use If I Ran the Zoo to question the ethical issues of having zoos. Perhaps Dr Seuss was making a statement against zoos. All of his animals are strange and nonexistent in his zoo. Maybe those are the only animals that belong in a zoo.
As sites defending Dr Seuss will point out, when he began writing for children in 1937, stereotypic images prevailed. The sole Chinese character in his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, wears stereotypic clothing and carries chopsticks. He is coloured yellow and called a “Chinaman,” Later in his career, Dr Seuss removed the colour yellow and called the man Chinese.
Dr Seuss’s biographer Jay Jones points out the “racist stereotypes” in Dr Seuss’s early work, but also adds that by the end of the 1950s, he had written Horton Hears a Who!, which is dedicated to his Japanese friend. Scholars consider it to be a book of apologies to his earlier work. Yertle the Turtle tackles fascism. The Butter Battle Book is said by many teachers to be the best anti-war book ever written. Secondary school teachers use it in the classroom with teenagers.
Dr Seuss’s body of political cartoons produced during World War II are not in favour either, but, as Danielle Slaughter, a black woman who describes herself as a “mom and independent scholar,” says in her blog Macademics, “justice is not always about canceling someone and their body of work. Sometimes it looks like providing room for restorative justice to take place. In my opinion, Dr Seuss, using the remainder of his career to focus on writing books full of important lessons, is an example of restorative justice.”
Slaughter points out that three of Dr Seuss’s most well-known later works, Horton Hears a Who!, The Lorax, and The Sneetches, “teach about the importance of inclusion and acceptance of others and yourself.”
Jones says, “I don’t think you write a book like The Sneetches if you haven’t evolved.”
Let’s not forget how we still admire the social evolution of Malcolm X as we rush to label and condemn Dr Seuss. Perhaps his body of work is most important for its evolution. It clearly shows change. As I write this there are people clamouring to remove Green Eggs and Ham from Dr Seuss’s catalogue and there are those who say The Cat in the Hat is really a stereotypic image of the black minstrel and he too must go. As you can see, censorship and banning books is a slippery slope, which serves only to bury a problem – not rectify it.