Censorship and Inclusiveness in Children’s Literature Part 3: Dr. Seuss’ Racist Imagery

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At sea aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73) March 1, 2002 — Hampton Roads elementary students take a tour on the flight deck during events held aboard shop to commemorate the national “Read to Kids, Read Across America” campaign, held on the birthday of the famous kids book author Dr. Seuss. George Washington is conducting carrier qualifications off the Virginia coast. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Bobbie Attaway. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Was Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) a confirmed racist who saw minority ethnic groups as caricatures?

The controversy about Dr. Seuss stems in large part from a 2019 study that was published in Research in Diversity in Youth Literature on the work of Dr. Seuss. In addition to writing and illustrating children’s books, Seuss was an advertising artist and also wrote political cartoons.

While this study examines his entire body of work to assess his attitudes, in particular it is a text analysis of race, national origin, and gender as represented in his children’s books.

There is no question that Dr. Seuss produced some pretty offensive work in his lifetime. While the researcher was particularly looking at race and national origin in the study, she was also “startled” at the absence of females in Dr. Seuss’s work.

The study runs to more than 50 pages. It is free to download, and if you want to read it, I recommend that you do. I took the time to read it. While it is thorough, many of the findings heavily rely on the researchers’ analysis of Seuss’s work, which you can also look up for yourself.

I agree with some of her findings, and some I find a bit of a stretch or are mitigated by other values in the work. These are some of the points the researcher describes and what I was able to find out.

See the controversial images in this article: Here are the ‘wrong’ illustrations that got six Dr. Seuss books cancelled

Dr. Seuss’s War cartoons here: The surprisingly radical politics of Dr Seuss

His advertisements and more of his War cartoons here: Before Dr. Seuss Was Famous He Drew These Sad, Racist Ads

Are there images of White people sitting on Asian people’s heads while the White person carries a gun?

The article linked above shows the image I think the researcher references from the book, If I Ran the Zoo, which is one of the books that has been taken out of print. It’s problematic and out of date for sure although I think the man with the gun is guarding the animal (or people from the animal), which is not how the study makes it sound. The reference to “slant eyes” in the text is awful.

Is the character The Cat in the Hat a caricature of a Black person in a minstrel costume?

Yup, I think there is something to that. You can certainly argue that the character shares some of the characteristics. But is he drawn as a Black person? No. He’s a cat. And if some of the characteristics do come from the minstrelsy, certainly few people in the 21st Century are going to pick up on it.

I see the Cat in the Hat as a trickster character, an archetype found in many folktales, including but not limited to those found in Africa. I would like to see children introduced to the “trickster” more often than they probably are, at school anyway, because with the trickster there is the idea of having agency in one’s life…of taking it when it is not given to you. The most famous version of the trickster are the tales of Br’er Rabbit, collected by abolitionist Joel Chandler Harris after the end of the Civil War.

These stories often get dismissed because of the character “Uncle Remus”, and some of his work may be problematic to modern readers, but the stories came from the Black Southern American oral tradition, and we are lucky to have them.

Joel Chandler Harris page at Project Gutenberg (click here for help with Project Gutenberg).

See a more in-depth analysis of this question here: Is “The Cat in the Hat” Racist?: Censorship and Inclusiveness in Children’s Literature Part 4

So I’m saying if there are some things in the The Cat in the Hat that might have racist roots, are there other factors that override it? Or not?

Click here for an exhibit The History of Minstrelsy from the Library of Congress (LOC), the national library of the U.S.

Does Dr. Seuss’ advertising and political art prove he’s a racist?

Since the researcher also offers detailed descriptions of Dr. Seuss’s other work, I took a look at what I could find there as well. Definitely there is a lot of work done before and during World War 2 depicting Japanese in a way that I find offensive, but also we were fighting a war with them, and he was far from the only one. You can still see some depictions of Japanese from the War popping up in old cartoons. We have to remember how scary it is to have your country invaded; folks are going to react a certain way.

This one is bad, but at least it supports a political view that had a context after the Japanese attack on Hawaii. Dr. Seuss, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are also some political cartoons from the War years that are explicitly anti-racism, especially some decrying racism against Black people that were keeping them from doing War work: the work was needed, but also, those were well paying jobs; you can see some of those if you check the links above.

But there are also some truly horrifying cartoons and advertisements depicting Black people as animal like: no question. They are bad. I have a hard time believing that anyone at anytime would think that’s ok.

Here we have incredibly vulgar racism and the objectification of women. Dr. Seuss, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. I thought about using this as a cover thumbnail, but it is just too crude.

But again, I go back to the question of censorship. I don’t think anyone would be the least concerned about Dr. Seuss’s advertising work if he wrote for adults. People might not care to read him, but they wouldn’t censor him.

I’m happy that loving to read is no longer being associated with Dr. Seuss. As mentioned, he already gets enough attention. Let’s spread the love to some of the other great children’s authors, including authors for beginning readers. That’s true diversity. But let’s not fall into the trap of “good” censorship and “bad” censorship. It doesn’t exist.

You can view parts of a special collection The Advertising Artwork of Dr. Seuss online at the University of California San Diego. Click on the logos at the top of the screen to view his work for the different companies shown.

More from this series:

Part 1: Who gets to say what is O.K.?

Part 2: Laura Ingalls Wilder and the American Library Association

If you want to know what your library is up against: The Most Frequently Banned Books of 2019

2 thoughts on “Censorship and Inclusiveness in Children’s Literature Part 3: Dr. Seuss’ Racist Imagery”

  1. That’s great information, but I am forced to think, can’t people change? I am equally horrified about the Tintin in the Soviet & Tintin in Africa, it felt impossible for me to believe that these came from the pen of the same man who was so nuanced in observing even the cattle on the roads of Delhi … I do not know what to make out of it … but I certainly do not throw my beloved Tintin away … even though there is barely any female representation, except for Castafiore.
    Is it not possible that these people were brought up in a certain way of thinking, & later, in their adult life, realised how their worldview was wrong, &changed their mind, I am just speculating, of course.
    Actually, there really hasn’t been a better tool to environmental consciousness for kids than The Lorax …

    1. Thanks for the correction. When I wrote the article, I checked the dates because I remembered some controversy about the order of the books…I don’t recall exactly how I went wrong, but anyway it’s updated now! Much appreciated.

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