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And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street: A Racist Caricature!

CW: Offensive beliefs (mostly racism) & discussion of suicide

 

With the opening of March came the end of six books written by Theodor Seuss Geisel. Out of these six, only a couple are well-known, including And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo. To nobody’s surprise, this sparked outrage and led to a very unusual news week. Headlines included U.S. Representative Kevin McCarthy [R] reading Green Eggs & Ham to make it clear that he still likes Dr. Seuss. Just in case you were worried.

 

Something about this story immediately piqued my interest. Perhaps it was those who are most well-known for banning books shouting “Censorship!” over a deceased children’s author. Or maybe it was the news of Seuss’ books skyrocketing up bestseller’s lists in the wake of this cancellation. Or maybe, it was me experiencing the same nostalgia that propelled the right-wing’s fury.

 

I think it’s been known for some time that Dr. Seuss, the man, was not the heroic, whimsical Santa figure that his books became known for invoking. Some of this is because he was a white man in the early 1900s, which came (usually) with a healthy dose of discriminatory ideology. But even setting aside conventions of his time, as those who support Confederate statues and the founding fathers so often do, Theodor was a shitty man. He drove his first wife to suicide by cheating on her while she was suffering with terminal illness. Even more heartbreakingly, his impact on her health was such that she wrote a note beforehand assuring him that he could “say [she] was overworked and overwrought” so that no blame would fall to him in the public eye. Theodor went on to marry the woman his wife had always been worried about.

 

However, Seuss Enterprises did not make their decisions based on the questionable morals of their founder’s personal life. Theodor has long been separated from his Dr. Seuss persona, with an ever-growing number of books under his brand being penned posthumously. Instead, these six books they’ve chosen to recall are being pulled due to portrayals within them of people of color. Only six, of around 60 books actually written by Dr. Seuss, have been found offensive enough to be recalled after nearly a century. I’d say that’s a feat for Dr. Seuss! The times have changed, thank god, and the idea that most of his work has survived and aged respectably says much about the author while he lived.

 

Known to be a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, but also Japanese Internment Camps; an avid opponent of fascism and the Jim Crow Laws but also a proponent of many racist stereotypes in his cartoons, Theodor Geisel was a complicated man. His politics often pointed left, while his artistic renderings of people of color were far more often than not terribly racist, offensive, and false stereotypes that he unashamedly leaned into. For example, If I Ran the Zoo is being recalled due to its depiction of African people as monkeys and a “chieftain” in a turban as exhibits in the titular zoo.

 

Although it is always hard to come to terms with the fact that a piece of media that once meant a lot to you carries undertones you never thought of or aged into seeing, we have to remember that our nostalgia does not matter more than the emotional well-being of those being represented in these books. As a few Twitter users have posed: What matters more: the reputation of a deceased children’s book author or protecting children, especially of color, from seeing such disturbing imagery. I am more than happy to say goodbye to Mulberry Street if it keeps even one child from feeling an ounce of heartache over these depictions. Also, it is worth noting that the declaration from Seuss Enterprises is not a book ban or cancellation. They simply are not printing more copies of these six titles. They will still be found in used bookstores and public libraries and personal collections for decades to come. But that’s an article to be written at a later date.

 

A few articles to read for more information:

VOX: https://www.vox.com/culture/22309286/dr-seuss-controversy-read-across-america-racism-if-i-ran-the-zoo-mulberry-street-mcgelliots-pool

Letters to the Editor: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/opinion/letters/dr-seuss-books-racism.html

NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/books/dr-seuss-mulberry-street.html

Brittany is a sophomore at Rhodes College, majoring in Art History with a minor in Creative Writing. She writes for the Same Faces Collective and spends an ungodly amount of time on Netflix, falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes, and making Cherry Limeade trips to Sonic.
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