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Is “The Cat in the Hat” Racist?: Censorship and Inclusiveness in Children’s Literature Part 4

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The NEA has recently done away with the link between “Read Across America” Day and Dr. Seuss’ birthday because of concerns about Dr. Seuss’ racism.

At sea aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73) March 1, 2002 — Executive Officer Captain K.M. Donegan, and Ms. Princess Moss, Virginia Education Association President, read to elementary students in the ship’s hangar bay during events 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.

A short time ago, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, who manage the Dr. Seuss intellectual property, announced that they were taking six of Dr. Seuss’ books out of publication because of their racial overtones.  Frankly, I agree with the decision to take these books out of print.  I’ve seen the images, which I’ve discussed here, and they are outdated.   

When I was looking into this original story, I took a look at the study that is behind it: The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens.  Their analysis of the Cat in the Hat books has been on my mind since then because it didn’t ring true, but it’s been long time since I read these books. 

In my earlier post, I touched on some of the issues I have, but I felt a bit guilty writing about this issue without rereading the Cat in the Hat books, so I requested them from the library, and read them again. 

Here are some of the key points that Ishizuka and Stephens make in their study of Dr. Seuss’ children’s books, with responses:

 

1.     The Cat in the Hat is a minstrel character.

 

If you go online and look at old pictures and video of minstrel performers, you can see a resemblance, but it isn’t as pronounced as Ishizuka and Stepens portray it, even if you look up the specific characters and performances they cite. You can see an image of the performance the hat is supposed to be based on here, in the movie Babes in Arms and this clip from early filmmaker George Méliès “Off to Bloomingdale Asylum”. These images are racist, no question…I find them hard to watch…but do you see The Cat in the Hat?

I always thought the Cat was vaguely dressed as a clown, and of course, minstrel characters are supposed to be clown like. 

I am absolutely not advocating a revival of this art form, but I also feel the need to point out that in its time and place, it did provide a means for acquainting White people with Black culture. 

Minstrel shows were also used to build support for abolition and equal rights.  White northerners didn’t know anything about the lives of Black southerners, and the minstrel show was used to educate and entertain. Sometimes skits such as scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an abolitionist book, were included in the program, and anyway, you can say a lot of truths in a joke that you can’t get away with saying straight.  And that happened for sure.

Check out this study: The Power of Playing the Fool: Subversive Use of Minstrelsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby Dick

There is also the character of the trickster, which you see in the minstrel show and in folk tales that come from the African tradition.  They have been collected in Africa and also in the southern U.S., most notably by Joel Chandler Harris in the Uncle Remus tales (see more about this below). 

Is the Cat a trickster?  For sure.  Does he represent what the kids would like to do but can’t or won’t?  I say yes.   

The Cat brings joy and some freedom to some kids you could say have been neglected since their mother has left them home alone (I don’t really think that: a little boredom and a little responsibility is good for kids), and ALSO he comes back and cleans up his mess.  He doesn’t let the kids get into trouble. 

You could also argue that the kids made up the whole thing as a way to entertain themselves on a boring day. Another perspective is that the kids learn about creativity and imagination from the Cat.

So the message I get is put one over on “the man” (or the mom) if you can.  Just don’t get caught, and if all else fails. Play dumb. 

Playing dumb doesn’t mean you are.


Uncle Remus Tales: Br’er Rabbit the Trickster

Joel Chandler Harris wrote down folk tales he collected from African Americans around the time of the Civil War. They aren’t seen very much today because many people think they are racist, but in fact Br’er Rabbit is an example of the trickster character that is often found in African folk tales and in folk tales from various Native American nations. Scholars aren’t even sure who got the stories from whom: Did Native Americans learn them from African Americans, or vice versa? Or both?

Part of the problem with Uncle Remus is the bad press the character got after the Disney film Song of the South, which presents an idealized vision of plantation life and an older Black man called Uncle Remus telling stories to a White boy. No one wants to see that. But suppressing the tales entirely also suppresses an important piece of African American culture.

Even though many early Black Americans were enslaved and many were illiterate, they still had a culture and that shouldn’t be suppressed.

Joel Chandler Harris was a Southerner folklorist and journalist whose mission was to record these stories before they were lost.

Visit the Joel Chandler Harris page at Project Gutenberg to download the stories for FREE.


 

2.     The plot of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back hinges on the racist idea that Black people got their color from drinking ink.

 

The “Cat Ring”

I read the whole book before I went back and looked at the study again, and then I had to start laughing.  Granted, what I am about to say results from a misreading (or does it), but I always thought the ring in the tub was supposed to be frosting from the cake.  The book doesn’t say that, but on one page, the cat is eating cake in the tub, on the next page the cake is floating on the water (on a dish), and in the next, the cake is gone, the water is drained out of the tub, and there’s a pink ring. The cake is nowhere to be seen. 

The NARRATOR calls it a “cat ring”; I always thought it was frosting.  The lesson I learned is that eating cake in the tub is a bad idea. 

You know that schools spend a lot of time teaching kids to “read” and interpret the illustrations in children’s books, right?  I don’t think they did in my day, but they do now. 

The Cat is not pink, and the ring is not black.

The “Spot Battle” 

Ishizuka and Stephens go on to characterize the battle between the little cats and the pink spots as a battle in which the cats are supposed to be trying to kill the blackness.  They are very concerned that they used the word “kill” rather than “clean”. 

The researchers seemed to have missed that this book is a beginning reader.   The books are controlled for vocabulary and phonemes, or sounds.  Clearly, on this page, we are working on “ll”.  Not “ea”.  In other places, I see “ee”; “ea” and “ee” together would be confusing for the little kids.

The whole point of The Cat in the Hat is that Seuss was challenged to write a book with only a certain number of words that kids would enjoy. 

Yes, the imagery of the pop-gun shooting cats is a little out of place in 2021 because kids don’t play much with guns anymore , but I always thought that scene was about the little cats creating pandemonium because that is what happens when your parents are away if you aren’t careful. 

Anti-Communism?: an alternate Reading

I could argue, if anything, that Dr. Seuss was anti Communist. The “pink” ring, in the mid 1950’s when this book was written and given Theodor Geisel’s politics, might well be “pinkos”, or Communists.  At at the end of the book, when little teeny tiny Cat Z (so tiny he is invisible) pulls “Voom” out of his hat and cleans up all the “pink”, isn’t that obviously the atom bomb? 

With the alphabet (the tiny cats represent the alphabet), comes knowledge.  With knowledge, comes responsibility.  The responsibility to wipe out the communist threat?

What I am noticing is that in the first book, the fish tries to maintain order, and in the second book, the older child does.  So I would say that the older child is learning to act “responsibly” like an adult, and leave childhood behind.

3.     Girls are nonexistent or silent in Seuss’s work.

On page 30 of the study, Ishizuka and Stephens point out that there are few female White characters, and no female characters of any other race. While they are speaking in terms of Seuss’ entire body of children’s literature, and I am sure they are correct, I took a moment to analyze the representation of gender in The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.

There are two human characters in these books: the boy narrator, who is pictured but never named, and Suzy.

Suzy is completely silent throughout both books, but she is present in almost every scene with her brother, who is also drawn as slightly older.  Yes, I am slightly annoyed that the brother does the talking and Suzy is silent. 

On the flip side, Suzy is THERE, and she is an actor in the book nearly as much as the speaker.  She’s not screaming at the Cat, but she’s not sitting to the side either. 

In the second book, she is out there shoveling snow with her brother.  As the sister of two brothers, and an older sister, I’ll be honest: I only did outdoor work when I felt like it.  I did more work in the house than they did, but I was ok with that.  Outdoor work is harder and sweatier.   

And Suzy gets a name when her brother doesn’t. 

Is “The Cat Is Out of the Bag” Quality Literary Analysis?

I’m pretty sure that my analysis of The Cat in the Hat is not original.  I might have read some of this somewhere before, and whether I have or not, I’m sure someone else has had similar thoughts and has written them down and published them.  

What I do what to do is call attention to literary scholarship that is too focused on one thing.  Ishizuka and Stephens analysis of this book is nothing more than basic reader response theory: they have read this book through their lived experiences. That’s valid, and reading their point of view helps me see how representations of different ethic groups elsewhere in his books might seem humorous to me but are dehumanizing to others: that’s useful.

But they also ignore Theodore Geisel’s (New Historicism/Cultural Studies) intentions, and they definitely ignore large portions of the text, which should be considered (Formalism)  

They are so intent on “calling out” Dr. Seuss in the name of “tolerance” that they miss some of the messages kids need to hear. The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back are works of literature in a very specific genre. They are humorous, and they also use multiple sign systems (semiotics), including imagery to make a point.

In short, the books have picture that help make the point because the genre demands vocabulary controlled for sounds (phonemes) and meaning.

And the books are funny. “Funny” can easily have an element of meanness to it; it all depends on the reader’s point of view. 

What Literature do Kids Deserve?

Definitely Dr. Seuss had some tendencies that I find offensive, and even in the 1940’s I would find some of his politics too far right, I am sure.  But that’s not all he was.  He had some messages kids need to hear.  And some other ones kids need to question. 

The most important message for everyone is that art is messy just like people are messy.  If we go around erasing every single vestige of our culture that is the least bit questionable, we are going to erase the people who made that art and did profound things with, or in spite of that art, invisible. 

 Let’s teach it, not erase it.

More on The Cat in the Hat:

 

 

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!

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