Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Dr. Seuss, a Cautionary Tale About His Tales

I heard the news this morning that the business that maintains Dr. Seuss's intellectual property will no longer publish six of his early books because they include racist imagery or words that are objectionable. 

The books are If I Ran the Zoo, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super! and The Cat’s Quizzer. I've never heard of those last two, but I know I read the first four as a child, possibly multiple times. I know there are additional critiques of at least The Cat in the Hat books (because the character is based in elements of minstrelsy).

I first saw the news of the six books in a Tweet thread from Maggie Koerth, who made a good point about the coverage she was seeing:

I wish stories like this would explain exactly what is wrong with these books. The zoo one, for instance, has caricatures of black people that look damn near inhuman out on display in the zoo. The eggs one has some caricatures of Asian people that are basically set up to look weird and have (white) children laugh and point at how weird they look. ...when people say “hey Dr Seuss had some racism issues and we are trying to figure out what to do with his books in light of that,” they aren’t talking about something innocuous or outside the scope of his children’s books.

Also, like, when you report on a Controversy maybe actually include a description of what it is you’re calling “controversial.” Especially when it is not remotely hard to look up or explain. It’s not even vague, guys. It’s just uncomfortably racist. Take two sentences to say so. I assure you, white reporters, it is not Being Unobjective And Biased to say “that racist caricature sure is racist.”

 Another Twitter-famous account, Charlotte Clymer, posted a lengthy thread about the supposed banning of Seuss by the Loudon County (Virginia) school system. Turns out the schools there didn't ban the books, they just stopped promoting them on a day in March that promotes literacy. Clymer describes and links to a thorough study whose authors examined the entire Seuss library and found that while he had evolved in some ways, there were still questionable depictions in his later works:

Given the clear evidence that Dr. Seuss' kids books still used racist depictions--even if they're not obvious to white people like me--maybe continuing to tout them as the gold standard of anti-racism in early childhood education isn't the best way to go here?

So, Loudon County Public Schools kept the books, still display them, still allow kids to check them out, but simply don't want to hold them up as THE central gateway to childhood literacy because of demonstrable racist depictions. That seems... pretty damn reasonable?

Between Koerth's and Clymer's threads, there are a few comments in response that show images of some of the pages in question from the books, but not all. 

I remember the shock I felt when I brought out Curious George and Babar for the first time to read with Daughter Number Three-Point-One when she was much too young to understand or remember. The latter was not a series I had read as a child, but the George books were read to my first or second grade class. As I started to read them aloud close to 27 years ago now, I recognized how wrong they were: that it's hard to understand Curious George as anything but an analog for the slave trade and Babar…let me quote from this post called Colonialism for Kids:

“Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant” was originally written in 1931 by Jean de Brunhoff. In this story, young Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter, he is abandoned by all of his forest friends, so he runs to the city where he is taken in by the Rich Lady. Babar is instantly enamored and becomes “civilized” under the instruction of the Rich Lady. Two of his elephant cousins, Arthur and Celeste, eventually run away from the forest to join Babar, who teaches them what he’s learned, and they too are now “civilized.”

Arthur and Celeste’s mothers soon follow and are angry at the children for running away. Babar decides he isn’t completely happy in the city. He misses the forest, he misses his friends, and he and his family ought to return. While they journey back, the King of the Elephants dies in the forest after accidentally eating a poisonous mushroom. The elephants are unsure of who to name as his successor, but then Babar pulls up, and the elephants know by the sight of him that he must be the new king. Babar marries his cousin Celeste, and she becomes queen. This first story ends with Babar and Celeste in a hot air balloon, ready to travel the world.

I remember the ugly feeling of understanding that those uncivilized elephants back in the village automatically recognized civilized Babar was their better, and therefore should be king. It went without saying in the narrative.

If you're wondering what I did at the time, well, I stopped reading and put the books away. DN3.1 was too young to discuss it with or even understand that I was stopping. 

The rest of the books in the two series may be more innocuous once their premises are established (I don't know, I never checked), but I couldn't get past these premises. There are too many other good books out there to waste time just because I had vague memories of a story from elementary school or because there were cute stuffed Babars.

As far as what to do about Dr. Seuss specifically, I plan to look through the books I have (none of the six titles listed above, as it happens) to look for his obvious weakness for orientalist stereotypes, among other possibilities, so I know what I have in my hands. I've heard mentions of things in Horton at least, and obviously there's the Cat in the Hat. But I don't know what else may be in there.

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