Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Cat in the Woodpile?

So today I learned that Dr. Seuss is racist. I loved him as a kid. I had no idea. I feel so dirty.

It’s probably true, too--by today’s standards. I went back and checked his book, If I Ran the Zoo, which has been mentioned in this regard. In it Seuss writes of trips to exotic destinations to capture exotic beats. None of the destinations are real, but the people of Zomba-ma-Tant all wear their eyes at a slant. It is racist nowadays to notice such things. The inhabitants of the African island of Yerka are drawn wearing grass skirts and nothing else.

Of course, logically, there is nothing inherently wrong with having eyes that slant, or wearing grass skirts. Some find both attractive. So why is featuring them racist?

I suppose Seuss might be accused of not seeing these exotic folk as fully human. That’s a stretch—it involves mind-reading. But then again, if so, he is at least fair-minded and non-discriminatory in his racism. Besides these portraits of East Asians and Africans, his child protagonist also hunts the Russian Palooski, apparently a rara avis, among heavily bearded men wearing high fur hats. Its belly, we are told, is blueski.

Another expedition is “to the wilds of Nantucket.”

The book is about imagining exotic animals and exotic places. Really, if you portrayed people all around the world as looking just the same, where’s your book?

The other “racist” book he wrote, I am informed, is And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street. This one features a “Chinese boy who eats with sticks,” again in the context of trying to imagine something remarkable and exotic. Yet Chinese boys do eat with sticks, and it would not occur to me that they ought to be ashamed of this. Who’s the racist here? Are you supposed to be ashamed of being Chinese, or African, and holding to traditional practices?

I suppose I should be offended too, as someone of Irish ancestry. The book gives the chief of police a distinctly Irish name, Mulvaney. Stereotype!

This all came up, as you have probably read, when a librarian in Cambridge Massachusetts actually rejected a donation of a collection of Dr. Seuss books from Melania Trump on the grounds that they were racist. Interestingly, none of those books was If I Ran the Zoo or And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, although she cites them as the prime examples of what he objects to.

But then, she mentions “The Cat in the Hat.” Apparently the cat mocks black people. The librarian refers to a study by Katie Ishizuka, whose claim to fame, at least as the librarian’s source puts it, is that her husband is a grad student at UCSD. “She [Ishizuka] points out that the Cat in the Hat, perhaps Seuss’ most famous character, is based on minstrel stereotypes. ‘The Cat’s physical appearance, including the Cat’s oversized top hat, floppy bow tie, white gloves, and frequently open mouth, mirrors actual blackface performers; as does the role he plays as ‘entertainer’ to the white family—in whose house he doesn’t belong.’”

Now let’s be honest here. Ishizuka is probably right that elements of the cat’s appearance really do come from minstrel shows. Minstrels did tend to wear top hats, big bow ties, and white gloves, like the cat. But there are a lot of leaps of logic involved here.

First, it is a perfectly arbitrary re-interpretation of history to hold that minstrel shows were insulting to blacks. As I have written here before, they were thought of as pro-black in their day, and often banned in the South before the Civil War. They were especially popular with black audiences. They were, in principle, about as anti-black as the Rolling Stones, in emulating the American black music that they love.

Second, every other cartoon character before the Cat in the Hat came along wore a bow tie and white gloves. How is Seuss being racist, if he is simply following the conventions of his genre?

Third, there are good reasons for the convention. For example, fingers are hard to draw; gloves get you out of all the fussy detail. In general, these bits of costume have been tried and tested in the minstrel shows, and shown to be useful and popular. Why would you refuse to use them? For example, white gloved hands make gestures clearer and more dramatic. Bow tie and top hat frame and draw attention to the face and its expressions.

Fourth, given that nobody else has noticed this minstrel allusion over the sixty years or so since the book was published, is it reasonable to assume that Geisel himself ever noticed this? Isn’t it the person who sees this and points it out who is being racist? As someone once says, if you keep hearing dog whistles that nobody else hears, chances are, you’re the dog.

But then, racism is not the librarian’s main reason for rejecting the books. It is, she says to the First Lady, “You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature.” 

And this is the really striking thing.

How does a children’s book ever become “cliched,” “tired,” or “worn”? Think about it. For any children’s book, an entirely new generation of readers comes along every five to seven years or so, and they necessarily have not heard it all before. Nothing that was once good can possibly, for these intended readers, have become tired or cliched by the time they get to read it. Our familiar fairy tales can often be traced back at least to the bronze age.

Consider, too, objecting to the Cat in the Hat for perhaps having echoes of the minstrel shows. How can this be important if you are thinking about the actual readers? They were born five to seven years ago. They have never seen nor heard of a minstrel show. They will be perfectly unaware of any such references, even if they are there, and even if Seuss meant them maliciously.

In other words, this school librarian, whose job it is to find and curate books for children, has never taken a moment to think about the children. She does not care about the children in the least. It is all about herself and other librarians and their professional expertise. The library is there for her benefit.

This illustrates well the dangers of “professionalism.”

Fire them all.

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