Reading Across America: Was Seuss Racist?

Dr Seuss birthdayRead Across America is celebrated each year on March 2, the birthday of Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Seuss Geisel.  For years, Dr. Seuss has been the go-to book for early readers–books that kids loved and would actually read.  Recently, Dr. Seuss has fallen out of favor with  many educators because of the way he portrays people of color.

In a study published earlier this month in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramon Stephens found that only 2 percent of the human characters in Seuss’ books were people of color. And all of those characters, they say, were “depicted through racist caricatures.”

Last year when Melania Trump tried to give some Dr. Seuss books to  the Cambridgeport Elementary School Library in Cambridge as part of National Read Day on September 6, the librarian turned the gift down because she considered the books to be racist.  These books were the same titles that Melania had read to her son when he was young.   This was the first (but not the last time) I heard about Seuss as a racist.

Seuss is supposed to have have written “an entire minstrel show in college and performed as the main character in full blackface.”  And Suess wasn’t even a politician….

Seuss is not the first American children’s author who has fallen out of favor because of racism.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, the long time popular author of the Little House series, was labelled a racist last year because of the way her books portrayed Native Americans.  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has long been on and off banned book lists for years.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been contested for many reasons. Some readers object to the strong and sometimes racist language and think it’s inappropriate for children. However, most educators think given a proper context the book is a great read.

When is the right time for child to read books that many percieve to be racist?  Does the child need to be old enough to understand that harmful stereotypes are not true and may be hurtful?  In the case of Dr. Seuss, could his books that feature animal characters and not humans be more acceptable?  ( I have heard of people who think that Cat in the Hat is racist so that may not be a suitable idea either.)

Do you think that Seuss was a racist and should not be taught to children?

 

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6 thoughts on “Reading Across America: Was Seuss Racist?”

  1. Everything, including writing, has to be put into historical perspective. What was appropriate 50, 100 or thousands of years ago may not be so today (and visa versa). I have watched everything from Catcher In The Rye to Alice In Wonderland be banned by libraries while wondering if the Bible will be next.

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  2. I agree with you. As historical context changes, the judgment of right/wrong, good/bad, changes with it. And the Bible has been banned before. When I was in college in the 70s, one of the mature women in an education class referred to African-Americans as colored. That was the polite term when she was growing up. (I don’t think the N-word has ever been considered polite.) One of the young Black women in the class was highly incensed by the word colored. She could not understand that no offense was intended and by the woman’s generation she was being polite.

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  3. Good post. I agree that historical context is very important. It’s been a while since I’ve read Dr. Seuss but I never associate his books with white or black people – they were all yellow or other funny colors. It’s a tough conversation and I certainly don’t know the answer, but I keep reading and thinking about the issue.

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  4. Thanks for weighing in JeanMarie. Whether it’s societal values, history, literature, or even politics, we look at the past through the filter of the now. Times change and what’s deemed right or appropriate changes with it. It is too easy to condemn what ‘they’ did then if it’s not what ‘we’ do now. I wish more people would learn to view things in historical context and learn what worked and what we need to learn from things that did not work.

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    1. I think they may be anti-Martian. I’ve also heard that the people in the Baltics call Russian militia Little Green Men because of the lack of country designation on their green uniforms. I’m sure there is some group out there that is being discriminated against because of their chlorophyll gifted coloring. Or they just may be anti Irish because many things are colored green on St. Patrick’s Day.

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