A Mess Turned Message: Why Dr. Seuss Is Someone We Can All Learn From

Some may have been surprised to see the recent discontinuation of selected Dr. Seuss books. A man we knew right when you said his name because of beloved stories such as The Cat In The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! We celebrated his birthday every year when I was in school by reading his whimsical stories. But stories recently circulated that six of his books would be discontinued in publishing (not banned), by order of his estate due to “portraying people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The titles include McElligot’s Pool, Scrambled Eggs Super!, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, On Beyond Zebra!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. Why exactly were these being pulled from publishing? Mulberry Street was being pulled because of the portrayal of a Chinese character with chopsticks and If I Ran the Zoo for illustrating inappropriate drawings of Asian and African American individuals. What is the true problem behind this, and why are we noticing it now? Did these stories have racially hidden messages? 

woman in library Photo by Eliabe Costa from Unsplash

Dr. Seuss is also known as Theodor Geisel, and 700 million copies of his children’s books were sold. Before this time, he was known for cartoons that would be considered completely inappropriate for our time now. Back then this was not as appropriate, but sadly, more common. More scholars remember him for his racism in his wartime political cartoons he created and when Geisel attempted to apologize, it was not very well received. In an interview that I watched on CNN, Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University and an author known for his book “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” had an interesting response to if Dr. Seuss was truly a racist human being and if he had malicious intent behind his books. Philip stated, “racism or behavior in ways that support racism don’t have to come out of malice – they are perfectly nice people who inadvertently do racist things.” In response to this, self-awareness is the first thing that pops into my mind. There are so many things that could be offensive to many different cultures that you may not be completely aware of. Philip thought that Seuss was obviously trying to “accentuate the exotic” but not in a malicious way. It may have been a source of humor for him, but ethically and nationally, it was wrong.

Seuss passed away in 1991, but is it fair for us to make all these assumptions when this man is not here to speak for himself? We all know the world is not like it was decades ago. We are evolving and ever-changing, but let us not forget that books are an important part of how we learn, and by learning subjects that might be uncomfortable or controversial, we are teaching our children right from wrong and exposing them to the not-so-perfect world. In a NY Times article, Philip Nel was again quoted saying, “There are parts of his legacy one should honor and parts of his legacy that one should not.”  We should not ignore what is surely wrong with what Dr. Seuss produced, but we should also not discredit the good he has brought into the world through the magic of his children’s books. In the same article, a bookstore co-owner of Hicklebee’s Bookstore in San Jose, California said that pulling a book altogether for political reasons made her feel uncomfortable. To further add to this, she stated, “I think when there is something in a book that you find offensive, what a great teaching opportunity...We all have a choice whether to buy it or not.” 

Remember this, many of the books that might have been on your required reading lists for middle school, high school, or even college may have been pushing the racial sensitivity boundary. What if we never read these books, how would we know about the past or other cultures? How would we learn the difference between right and wrong in this world? It is never okay to be racially insensitive, but it also is not okay to attempt to erase the past from our minds.