Dr. Seuss used to be celebrated during Read Across America Week, but racism concerns have shifted the focus to more diverse books, even though the event centers around Seuss’ birthday on March 2nd.
In the past, many schools and libraries would celebrate the life and work of Seuss by programming around classic children’s titles like “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham” but as culture shifts, educators have started to view other works by the author as problematic.
School Library Journal published a piece last week discussing a new study where “researchers looked at how and to what extent non-white characters are depicted in Dr. Seuss’ children’s books.” What they found troubled them.
“In the fifty Dr. Seuss children’s books, 2,240 human characters are identified. Of the 2,240 characters, there are forty-five characters of color representing two percent of the total number of human characters. The eight books featuring characters of color include:The Cat’s Quizzer: Are YOU Smarter Than the Cat in the Hat?;Scrambled Eggs Super!; Oh, the Places You’ll Go!; OnBeyond Zebra; Because a Little Bug Went Ka-choo; If I Ran the Zoo; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street; and Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?
“Of the forty-five characters of color, forty-three are identified as having characteristics aligning with the definition of Orientalism. Within the Orientalist definition, fourteen people are identified by stereotypical East Asian characteristics and twenty-nine characters are wearing turbans. Characters aligned with Orientalism are sometimes attributed an ethno-racial identity, but are generally situated within a colorblind lens, often from an unspecified nationality, race, or ethnicity. Only two of the forty-five characters are identified in the text as “African” and both align with the theme of anti-Blackness.
“White supremacy is seen through the centering of Whiteness and White characters, who comprise 98% (2,195 characters) of all characters. Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles. This also remains true in their relation to White characters. Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss’ entire children’s book collection.”
NPR talked about Seuss performing in blackface during a college play and criticized how some of the characters are illustrated in Seuss’ books.
In And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example, a character described as Chinese has two lines for eyes, carries chopsticks and a bowl of rice, and wears traditional Japanese-style shoes. In If I Ran the Zoo, two men said to be from Africa are shown shirtless, shoeless and wearing grass skirts as they carry an exotic animal. Outside of his books, the author’s personal legacy has come into question, too — Seuss wrote an entire minstrel show in college and performed as the main character in full blackface.
If you visit the Read Across America site, which is run by the National Education Association, you will find that it’s been scrubbed of anything having to do with Dr. Seuss; instead there are resources for teachers and librarians to celebrate diversity in books and culture in the classroom.
And a few years ago, when First Lady Melania Trump donated some books by Dr. Seuss to a library, the librarian rejected them and called them racist propaganda.
we’re celebrating dr suess birthday all week at school like he wasn’t a horrible racist
— these niggas is yugioh cards (@thatso_RAEven) February 26, 2019
It’s Read Across America week and we’re boycotting in Ms. Harrod’s class because A) Dr. Suess was a racist and B) he was a mean, vindictive man who drove his ex-wife to suicide. No. Thanks.
— MHH (@m_hannah729) February 25, 2019
Many still celebrate Dr. Seuss because it’s easy programming and people seem to love it, though there’s a big debate in the education community about whether or not teachers and librarians should still teach classic works that have become problematic.
That tension between Seuss and Seuss-free classrooms is emblematic of a bigger debate playing out across the country — should we continue to teach classic books that may be problematic, or eschew them in favor of works that more positively represent people of color?
Part of the reason this debate is so complicated is the staying power of classic books. Think back to the works lining your school bookshelves.In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the N-word appears more than 200 times. But for generations, people have argued that the book is vital to understanding race relations in America in the late 1800s. And the trope of Jews as greedy and money-hungry is pretty clear in The Merchant of Venice. Yet Shakespeare is hailed for his keen understanding of human nature that continues to be relevant today.
View this post on Instagram
Who wore it better? #readacrossamerica #readacrossamericaweek #drseuss #drseussweek #happybirthdaydrseuss #drseussparty #drseussday #drseusstheme #drseussbooks #drseuss #library #librarydesign #librarydecor #librarydecorations #librarylife #librarylyfe #libraryfun #librariansofinstagram #libraryofinstagram #librarianstyle #librarian #librariansfollowlibrarians #thelibrarians #librarianfashion #schoollibrarian
View this post on Instagram
Here are a few of the decorations I made for Read Across America Week!!#readacrossamerica #readacrossamericaweek #drseuss #drseussweek #happybirthdaydrseuss #drseussparty #drseussday #drseusstheme #drseussbooks #drseuss #library #librarydesign #librarydecor #librarydecorations #librarylife #librarylyfe #libraryfun #librarydisplay #libraryofinstagram
Dr. Seuss will probably go the way of Laura Ingalls Wilder (who had her name stripped from a prestigious children’s book award last year) in the education community – no longer celebrated as an important work in children’s literature.
What’s missing in these types of debates are recognizing the time period in which they were written – classic works can’t be held to the same cultural standards we have today because they weren’t written today. If we do that, we won’t have anything left on our library shelves because eventually every work that’s been written will age poorly and be deemed racist.
Instead, educators (and parents) should read these books to their children, use them as teaching tools and talk to them about how culture changes. That seems like a better option than quietly pushing the titles to the back of the shelf in hopes people won’t read them anymore.