Essay/Commentary

The Seuss Suit

“We used to encourage children to take risks; today, every child, we’re told,
is at risk.”

by Aris Janigian

The “Seuss Suit,” let’s call it—not an actual lawsuit—started as a scholarly essay titled “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.”  It is authored by Katie Ishizuka and Ramon Stephens and appeared February 2019 in the on-line journal “Research on Diversity in Youth Literature,” hosted by St. Catherine University. The journal also includes articles with titles like “Reimaging Queer Death in Young Adult Fiction,’ and “De-politicized Diversity in American Girl Brand,” just to give you a sense.  

As with sundry articles of this sort coming out of Humanities or Education departments, this one wants the imprimatur of science. It has an introduction, literature review, theoretical framework (“critical literacy and critical race theory”), methods section, findings, and uses the most elementary statistics (counting examples of…), but for all that, it is utterly absent the most elementary research rigor that might make actual scientists confident of its conclusions.

One telling example: scientific studies demand that researchers remained unbiased towards the subject matter they are investigating, lest the results conform towards that bias. Of course, “objectivity” is a goal and most studies admittedly fall short of it. Here, however, our researchers admit and actually trumpet their bias, as if implying that “objectivity” itself is a kind of bias: you see, they argue, their work as social justice advocates is a positive predisposition, providing “a counternarrative for how one’s cultural and professional experiences can add, as opposed to subtract, to the wealth of knowledge and research used to guide this study.” We shouldn’t be surprised then that the hypothesis “Is Seuss a racist?” is less being tested by the authors than that they are marshaling evidence in support of it from the get-go.

Even a few years ago, “The Cat is Out of the Bag…” would have—and, indeed, should have—slid into obscurity as most academic articles of this sort do. But in our race-crazed media environment, it laid the intellectual groundwork for the current ruckus concerning our most beloved children’s book writer and his magically imaginative stories. On the basis of this article, The National Education Association this year decided not to tie its “Read Across America” day to Dr. Seuss’ birthday, and Dr. Seuss Enterprises performed an auto-da-fe, excising certain of their name-bearer’s books (six of them that barely sold, frankly) from publication. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.” 

Certain school districts are also “distancing” themselves from Dr. Seuss, a trend that I believe will expand far beyond books even more seemingly innocuous than Cat in the Hat. Taring Seuss is the start of a much larger cultural push by organizations such as Learning for Justice and Katie Ishizuka’s The Conscious Kid, to dictate and enforce the parameters of what is “acceptable” and “hurtful” reading: they are your kids’ librarian equivalent of BLM, modeled after Marxist ideologies, where race has taken the place of class, and wokeness has taken the place of class-consciousness. 

For these scholars, racism is endemic and intrinsic to our country’s founding and must be rooted out of children starting in infancy. The Conscious Kid tasks us to paranoidly and incessantly ask “race-conscious” questions like, “Who is coming over to the house to visit? Who do they [your kids] see when they are out and about in the neighborhood? What music are they hearing? What kind of artwork is hanging on the walls?”

Five years from now parents may wake to discover their kids have been woke while they were asleep, and the question of whether Fox in Sox should be yanked from the bookshelf will be answered by the kids themselves. Once upon a time, progressives derided conservatives for wanting to ban Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, and The Great Gatsby, and many other classics for their scabrous language and sexual overtones; today, progressives are leading the moral charge, and conservatives haven’t stopped the teeth gnashing on their end.  So, who will defend the idea that censorship is inimical to the idea and practice of liberty itself? 

We used to count on our literary scholars and critics to draw a line in the sand: this is junk, that is art; do what you will with the former but keep your puritanical hands off the latter.  They used to show us how ostensibly offensive, scandalous, or opaque passages of Bronte or Joyce or Baldwin illuminated a hidden truth about our human condition. Could Lolita, as an obvious example, pass muster as a masterpiece in today’s zero-tolerance milieu? My daughter, a student at a very good private school here on the West Coast, tells me that such professors are still around, for which I’m grateful, but it’s indisputable that their numbers are dwindling and have been for some time. Under the banner of Post-Structuralism, during the 80’s and 90’s and into the aughts, literary criticism no longer looked to books and authors for illumination, transcendence or redemption, and novels and poems and plays—even the greatest—were reduced to mere, and nearly interchangeable, “texts” over which their authors possessed no more authority than did their most mundane readers. (Didn’t all those critics see that Deconstruction would end up constructing its own death mask: by which I mean, that if all writing is self-referential, then—call it literary criticism or whatever— all writing about writing must also be self-referential.)

In short, our gate keepers were being thrown about and perishing on the high seas of their own theories. Literature and Comparative Literature, Education and some History departments decided, sometime around 2010, they must—for survival— devise a new mission, one that required solid land with plenty of sand. Upon that ground they would erect, as it turned out, Missions, in the vein of the old Franciscans, at places as far flung as Oberlin and University of Iowa and Pomona College: “There is the dry air of hope in these formerly dank dark quarters again!  Sexually ambiguous flowers to grow! Penile land predators—tens-of-millions of WASP to liquidate! Home grown heathen to convert! Criticism is back—to heal, reveal the real, make America more perverse, iniquitous, and exclusive than ever!” 

We learn from Ishizuka and Stephens, our amateur social scientists, or, to stay with the analogy, high priestess and priest (maybe zeiests?) in the new Mission system, that when Theodore Geisel, soon to be our Seuss, was at Dartmouth College he used certain racist stereotypes in his illustrations for the satirical college magazine Jack O’ Lantern, illustrations that nearly 100 years later fall flat or offend. The charge of racism, given our current standards, is fair, but also fair is that we give Geisel, indeed, our entire culture, a break: he was young, and ugly ethnic tropes, slurs, and jokes were common in those days.

Merely consult the great folklorist Alan Dundes to get a sense of how “insensitive” America was in days past.  When the Irish arrived here as refugees of the potato famine, they were called NINAS, for No Irish Need Apply signs posted at businesses; they were also drunks, pot lickers (what crushing hunger turns you into), and bog jumpers. Polish people were considered poor, stupid, dirty (“Why aren’t Polacks allowed to swim in Lake Michigan. Because they leave a ring”). Jews were kikes, materialistic and money-hungry (“Have you ever heard the Jewish football yell that goes: get that quarter back!”). Italians were, as everyone knows, mafiosos, but also dagos, greasers and guidos. In my hometown Fresno, Armenians were called “Fresno Indians,” a slur in those those days that was the equivalent of calling a black person “nigger.”  In a way, you can sum our historical backwardness up by this very ad in Jack 0’ Lantern—aimed at teenagers at Dartmouth! “It’s Toasted!’

An ad in Dartmouth’s “Jack O’ Lantern” Journal

If only we all could anticipate nearly 100 years from now what our progeny will consider vulgar (all rap music), oppressive (denying 16-year-old the right to vote), or lethal (drinking water from plastic bottles). 

On to his post-baccalaureate years, our authors condemn Seuss for his WW2 work where he, along with nearly every other illustrator at the time, was brutally critical of the Japanese, with whom—some apparently need reminding—we were at war following their carnage at a place called Pearl Harbor. To understand how identity power and politics underly this hollow claim, note that the authors, while they were at it, predictably failed to mention the many “hateful” cartoons Seuss made of Hitler and the Nazis, with whom we were also at war and in a way still are—as endless portrayals of them as the utter and timeless incarnations of evil— in TV shows, novels, and documentaries—attests. But perhaps enough time hasn’t passed, and who knows what the future will hold? Such is the Post-Marxists’ animus towards America— or, the Great Satan, as the Iranian Mullahs have nominated us—our own Mullahs might soon be castigating us for tearing the dessicated meat off the bones of Der Führer; reminding us that he was very kind to children and dogs and that Germans brought us sauerkraut and the Volkswagen after all. 

Now to Seuss’ books. There are several charges the authors make about them including  “Dominance,” “Exotification,” “Invisibility,” “Dehumanization,” “Silence,” and other such satanic terms that weirdly depict poor Seuss as the return of The Marquis De Sade, as though he’d debaucherously penned the likes of 120 Days of Sodom rather than Green Eggs and Ham. Most of these charges, take my word for it, are absurd as they sound, absurd to the point of academic farce. In the book Horton Hears a Who!, the authors reveal to us how “the Whos are ‘helpless’ [POC, specifically Japanese—my clarification] and need to be ‘saved’ and protected by the bigger, more powerful (White savior), Horton.”  Pay attention and you can find a most hateful example of Exotification in If I Ran a Zoo. There a man with a turban is riding an animal called a “Mulligatawny”—”the name of an actual Indian curry-flavored chicken soup. The animal is yellow in color, which reflects the color of the soup.”

Cat in the Hat was such a fun read! You won’t feel the same way after knowing that the Cat is a Black minstrel and that his slick coon ways— “the Cat’s umbrella (which he uses as a cane) and outrageous fashion sense”— I kid you not, clearly reveal Seuss’ racist stripes. If the Cat’s costume weren’t evidence enough, consider that “The Cat’s mouth is also depicted as open wide on fifteen of the nineteen pages he is present.” This, the authors tell us, “functions as a symbolically overdetermined feature in racist constructions of Blackness.” These people would even push Freud to a nervous breakdown. 

Like Robin Di’Angelo’s White Fragility this article suffers from simple-minded analysis, tendentious logic, and heightened if not hysterical rhetoric, insisting over and over again that we stretch our perceptions to the breaking point to find racism that was heretofore imperceptible.

With that said, a few of their complaints seem reasonable enough at first glance, including that Seuss featured too many male characters in too many of his stories. It would’ve been nice to find more females in his stories, though somehow the absence of them didn’t diminish my own two girls’ enjoyment of a dozen or so Seuss titles. Great literary characters, it seems, transcend gender and race, so that a boy can slip into the shoes or slippers of Dorothy or Alice or Charlotte, for instance, without missing a step.  In fact, children are fluid, shape-shifting. They want to know what they are and where they come from, but they almost univocally desire to imagine what they are not and what they might be, what worlds other than their own are out there to discover and inhabit.

We must reinforce for children the existence of certain hardwired structures of reality, but leave them to work out the forgiving detail as they creatively negotiate their way around, over, and between, so that they might learn to master the world at their own time and pace. This old fashioned jungle gym succinctly shows how we used to let kids do it. 

It is no coincidence that we have largely exchanged that for this:

Adults need to remind themselves that for children—starting at about reading age—life appears in turns capricious, boring, paradoxical, hypocritical, and often diabolical. If there is a dark side to Seuss—and there is—he imaginatively renders and tempers this very darkness—fear and phobias and confusion, etc.— into a dancing language that is in rhythm with kids’ hearts—the very reason his books are still cherished today. To impose a political interpretation on these books is heinous. If they were indeed heinous, children would have figured that out decades ago.  

Alongside the charge that Seuss failed to include females in his books is the charge that he featured too many white people. Likewise a reasonable complaint, except we should note that 9 out of 10 Americans were white (or at least considered themselves white) at the time when Dr. Seuss wrote his most popular books. With all that said, our cultural and demographic shift has made it incumbent upon us to account for a greater rainbow of colors and genders in every sphere of life, including children’s books. Our culture should welcome and encourage such changes, though to cancel Seuss for failing to think two generations ahead seems immature and mean-spirited.  

Then there is his And To Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street, the title that has caused the most recent Twitter insanity. Published in 1937, it is a simple tale spun by an imaginative boy on his walk home. The street is familiar and so the child begins to spin, as children do, fantastical happenings to bring his hum drum world alive. Suddenly there goes a horse drawing a broken-down cart; and then a Zebra pulling the same cart. But better yet might be a charioteer driving that cart; next a reindeer pulling a sled appears. Bigger and more spectacular might be an elephant lumbering down Mulberry Street, and, voila, there it is, pulling the sled in place of the reindeer. But there is a potential problem; such a massive animal would probably toss that little sled around, so the boy replaces the sled with a float (let’s call it), and then, onto that float the boy assembles a brass band with an organ tossed in—just the right size/weight for an elephant to pull. But the elephant can use some direction, and so the boy provides one of the band members with a whip. Riding the elephant is a “Rajah with Rubies perched High on His Throne,” who is smiling, broadly.  (To hear it read page by page you can go here, if you’d like).

Not a single child or sane adult, for that matter, would find anything wrong with this delightful scene. Everything agrees with the wildly wonderful and jumbled inner world of children. But we’re not done yet; the disagreements are deeper still as the story continues to nefariously unfold: at the bottom of the illustration running alongside the caravan appear, we naively assume, characters “enchanting” and “exotic” to the boy: a dandy with a ten-foot beard; a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat; and, alas, a Chinese man—wooden shoes, and pointed hat—holding a bowl and chop sticks. 

This last illustration was also rendered into a mural for the Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. At an event for the museum in October of 2017, three children’s book authors refused to attend because “We find this caricature of ‘the Chinaman’ deeply hurtful, and have concerns about children’s exposure to it,” they declared. Perhaps it was this complaint that spurred Katie Ishizuka and Ramon Stephens to write their article, or perhaps it was getting written contemporaneously. In any case, The Museum removed the mural based upon this complaint and replaced it with another.  

No culture with resilience and a normal immune system, exposure to earth and air, water and sun, would respond this way; rather, only would a culture that has hidden itself away from life and festered in the decontaminated atmosphere of its own theoretical unrealities; no culture still familiar with the dirt and dung of existence—the cuts, contusions, infections, still familiar with the body’s native ability to absorb and heal—; no culture that lets things mend and melt into forgetfulness would go into such fainting spells as has ours over such trifles. What a dour world these people insist we embrace. Is it any wonder our kids’ are so prone to self-loathing?

Am I the only one who wonders what nightmares are ahead should victimization become our most cherished national trait? What’s in store for a culture that washes and then sanitizes our kids’ hands after so much as turning a leaf by its stem; that straps masks over our kids’ airways while rushing them up a remote exercise trail in the Hollywood Hills where even cellular reception is impossible? Is it the very aggrieved, rootless, suicidal etherealness of this victim/virus culture—one galactically removed from the planet—that has invited such perverse readings of reality upon itself—as though to find, however decrepit and insubstantial, a home? As though we’ve been living on Mars and searching for an Earth.

We used to encourage children to take risks; today, every child, we’re told, is at risk. We  shouldn’t be surprised that in such a protective-bubble-world, that hurtful too, Ishizuka and Stephens tell us, is the presence of the Rajah. Seuss is guilty of what our authors call “Orientalism,” which, from what I gather from my reading of Edward Said, means illustrating someone from “the orient” either looking or dressing like someone from the Orient. 

But let’s have the neurotic authors explain it all themselves, in fact, to a small group of fourth graders at your typical elementary school, who have each been given a copy of the offending illustrations: 

LECTURER RAMON: “Stop smiling, kids. Use your eyes; look more carefully: who is the float carrying? Mayors, and bankers, maybe lawyers, privileged white men, all represented as superior by the top hats they wear!  Look! Who handles the whip?”

JACOB: “Every rider uses a whip, except the one driving the reindeer. He uses ropes, reins.” 

LECTURER RAMON: “Who handles the whip on the float!” 

ELISA : “The band member at the front!?”

LECTURER KATIE: “And what color is the man who uses the whip!” 

DENNIS: “Blue; his shirt is; white pants.”

LECTURER RAMON: “No, not his costume! His face, his face!”

STUDENTS (all together): “White?”

LECTURER RAMON “And what do White men use a whip to do!”

JACOB: “Make an animal go right, left, faster, or slower, all depending?”

LECTURER RAMON: “In America, in America, children. Think again, what were whips used for?”

ELISA: “To ride horses?”

JACOB: “Tame lions?”

LECTURER RAMON: “Think harder!  Think darker!”

STUDENTS (all together): “….?”

LECTURER RAMON: “To whip slaves and other such Black, Indigenous, and People of Color!”

ELISA : “BIPOC!”

LECTURER KATIE: “Let’s turn our attention to the man on the elephant.”

STUDENTS (all together): “The Rajah!”

LECTURER KATIE: “Do you know what country the so-called ‘Rajahs’ originate from?”

STUDENTS (some together): “Not really.”

JACOB: “Africa?”

ELISE : “India.”

LECTURER KATIE: “Yes. What is your name?”

ELISE: “Elise.”

LECTURER KATIE: “Elise, do you know what in racist days of the past people from India, China, Persia, Japan were called? 

ELISE: “Asians.”

LECTURER RAMON: “No. When Dr. Seuss was doing his murderous cartoons of those people…’”

ELISA : “Dr. Seuss murdered people?”

LECTURER KATIE: “When you emotionally harm a group of people in a way you murder them.”

All quiet 

LECTURER KATIE: “Anyway, those people… were called people from the ‘orient.’”

DENNIS: “Like in direction.”

LECTURER KATIE: “That’s different. Orient here means “East,” like where the sun rises from, because to White’s those people were located East of them. The point is, white people couldn’t see things from anyone else’s perspective but their own. They made fun of people from ‘The Orient.’”

LECTURER RAMON: “White people think they are the center of the world! They thought everyone that was East of them was less than them.” 

DENNIS: “But the Chinese and Japanese and Indian people are still East of them, right?”

LECTURER RAMON: “Yes, yes. But that’s not the point!”

LECTURER KATIE: “By calling them ‘oriental’ White people did what we call ‘other’ them, turn them into caricatures, people with no feelings. They were all different but White people treated them all like they were the same.” 

LECTURER RAMON: “Like even though there are a hundred different types of lizards, people just say when they see a lizard, ‘lizard.’”

DENNIS: “Those people do kind of look alike, though.”

LECTURER RAMON: “Those people! Those people! You see…”

LECTURER KATIE “What Ramon means is by saying ‘those’ people you are othering. When White people say POC look alike, that’s racist.” 

DENNIS: “It’s good then that we call them ‘Asian.’”

ELISE: “What does ‘Asian’ mean?”

LECTURER KATIE “East. Where the run rises from. Now, what’s on his head, the so-called Rajah’s?”

CYNTHIA: “A hat. A funny looking hat.” 

LECTURER KATIE: “Funny is demeaning. It is ‘othering.’ Like if someone from India who’d never seen a baseball cap said it looked ‘funny’ when you passed him on the street.” 

CYNTHIA: “Sorry.”

LECTURER RAMON: “That ‘funny’ (air quoting) hat is called a turban. People in India used to wear them, okay. That’s how people, white people, just like you, made India people dress when they wanted to other them—by putting a turban on their heads in their hateful cartoons.”

CYNTHIA: “I’m not white. I’m Mexican. My mother is.  I swear!”

JASON: “My grandmother married a Pilipino man.” 

SOSSI: “I’m Armenian. Is that white?” 

LIA: “Me too; I’m Jewish.”  

LECTURER KATIE: “What we mean is that White’s called them ‘towel heads,’ because a turban is a cloth that was traditionally wrapped around the head with a cloth to protect their hair. That’s what Dr. Seuss was saying when he put that turban on the head of the Indian man.” 

DENNIS: “My mom and sister do that, because they have long hair, when they come out of the shower.”

LECTURER RAMON: “Your mom has nothing to do with it.”

ELISE: “If they wore them to protect their hair and I’m making a picture of them wearing the turban how is that putting them down?” 

DENNIS: “We have neighbors, Sikh people, and the grandpa, he wears a turban. That’s not just in cartoons. They’re rich. The mom drives a Ferrari.”

LECTURER RAMON: “That’s what White people tell you so that they can make like they don’t have power. That some POC have Ferraris. Or own big companies. Or are famous, like Oprah or Michael Jordan. Now, what color is that Indian person wearing the turban? Not his uniform, but his skin color, his skin color!”

STUDENTS (all together): “White.”

LECTURER KATIE: “He is white in the cartoon, but, in fact, he is a Person of Color. He isn’t white, but Seuss illustrated him this way.”

ELISE: “Dr. Seuss should have painted him a different color? Indian people’s skin color is more like Mexicans or Hawaiians. Kind of brown.”

LECTURER RAMON: “The point is, a white male supremacist “uses a whip over the man of color and the elephant pulling his cart.” [this is the verbatim from our authors’ paper]. 

ELISE: “I don’t know, it looks maybe more like he’s aiming for the elephant’s butt.”

LECTURER KATIE: “Now, let’s turn to the Chinese person. Though in the pages from the book you’re holding the Chinese person is white, in the original book he’s colored yellow!”

ELISE: “So, Dr. Seuss erased his yellow.” 

LECTURER RAMON: “Yes, because it’s degrading, dehumanizing, essentializing to color a Chinese person yellow.”

DENNIS: “It’s good that he did that then? Made him white.”

LECTURER KATIE: “Yes.”

JACOB: “I thought it was bad that the Rajah was colored white. Now it’s good that Dr. Seuss colored the Chinese man white?”  

STUDENTS (all together): “…..”

ELISE: “What’s ‘essentializing’ mean?”

LECTURER KATIE: “That’s not the only thing. That he has slanted eyes, wears a pointy hat, and the wooden shoes that he wears, and the bowl and chop sticks he carries. Those are also so, so examples of ‘othering’ people.”

ELISE: “But at Chinese restaurants they have chopsticks. They serve wonton soup in bowls.  We ask for forks, though.”

DENNIS: “Chinese people don’t dress like that? I mean in China?”

LECTURER KATIE: “They used to, but only peasants did. Dr. Seuss is saying that all Chinese people are peasants.” 

DENNIS: “But if they dressed like us how were we supposed to know they were Chinese in the book?”

ELISE: “I have a question: if being different is good, wouldn’t it be bad if we made them dress like us in the cartoon?” 

LECTURER RAMON: “Seuss should never have pictured Chinese people to begin with!”

ELISE: “Because there were no Chinese people? No Indian people too?”

STUDENTS (all together): “…..”

DENNIS: “My mom, she says its multiple-culture, and that’s good.”

LECTURER KATIE: “Multi-cultural.  That’s not good.  That’s an excuse for white people to stay in power. Today we call it diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

LECTURER RAMON: “By saying that there are Chinese people that live happily in this country, or that Indian people ride in their parade, they now have an excuse to say that these people have equity in their world, a world that they control, a white world that hates, a world that that doesn’t make room for anybody but themselves. It’s horrible. Just horrible. If you don’t see that we won’t get anywhere. You’ll all remain racists! We’ll just stay in this racist mess we’ve been in forever!” 

All the children start sobbing.

ALL TOGETHER: “We promise we won’t be racist, but can we still keep Dr. Seuss. We love Dr. Seuss!”

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