I’m conflicted that the company managing the estate of Dr. Seuss decided to stop printing and licensing a number of the author’s books. Their reasoning is that “the books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
The books were written in a previous era, when cultural expectations were different. They included what are considered today to be racist images and stereotypical portrayals of minorities.
The decision affects six of the more than 60 books authored by Dr. Seuss (the pen name of Theordor Seuss Geisel), including his 1937 debut, “And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street.”
None of the discontinued books were those most beloved by readers, such as “Cat in the Hat,”
“Green Eggs and Ham,” or “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.”
As soon as the announcement was made, typical battle lines were drawn. Cancel culture is destroying America! Fox News spent most of a day skewering the canceling of Dr. Seuss. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appeared on television saying that “Dr. Seuss was outlawed.”
Charles Blow, in his column for the New York Times, wrote:
“Racism must be exorcised from culture, including, or maybe especially, from children’s culture. Teaching a child to hate or be ashamed of themselves is a sin against their innocence and a weight against their possibilities.”Charles Blow
In reality, Dr. Seuss has not been canceled. This was a decision made by a company attempting to preserve the author’s legacy while rejecting aspects of his work that don’t align with current social and cultural values. It wasn’t due to pressure from an angry woke mob or an order issued by an authoritarian, book-banning government.
For years, the Dr. Seuss canon has been criticized for racist leanings, but most people (white people) hadn’t a clue. We hadn’t noticed anything wrong with the books looking down from the pedestal of white privilege during bedtime reading. We didn’t know the imagery could be hurtful and harmful to a large segment of children.
I was speaking with someone who loved Dr. Seuss books as a child (who didn’t!). She was angry and disgusted by the decision to no longer license or print these books.
I carefully responded:
“It’s a complex issue without an easy answer. If you were a member of a historically marginalized group and subject to constant stereotyping, might you feel differently about the decision to stop printing these books?”
She immediately attacked me. Cancel culture run amok! People are overly sensitive! What next—“Gone With the Wind?” “Huckleberry Finn?”
Which brings me to the part where I’m conflicted. I support the estate’s decision to withdraw these books, but there is the question of how far do we go. Avoiding racist stereotypes is especially important in children’s and young adult literature, when early impressions are formed that become embedded in the psyche. Adult literature is a different beast.
Is it possible to include introductions to books, films, and other art deemed problematic and use this as an opportunity to draw attention to the issues, provide historical context, and educate readers?
Like I said, there’s no easy answer. But I do know that as an author, if I were accused of being racially or gender insensitive I would be mortified. In fact, I have been.
In my novel “Stash” there is only one Black character: he’s a secondary character, a former NFL player turned drug-dealer and villain. At the time I was writing the novel, I hadn’t considered what hole I might be digging for myself. After the novel was published, I was doing a book talk in my town and a reader (who was Black) came up to me and told me how much he liked the book. So it still hadn’t registered on me what mistake I might have made. Only after one reader posted an online review that mentioned “racist undertones” in the novel did I wake up. And what did I do? I panicked. I didn’t want to be that author. I had made writing decisions that seemed to fit the story without considering what other impacts those decisions might have. That was a mistake on my part. Will I only write about middle-aged suburban white people now? Absolutely not. I want to expand, not contract, as a writer, but I’ll be more aware of the decisions I make and their potential ramifications. I read Black and Asian authors; I want them to read me.
As soon as the decision was made to no longer print or license these six Dr. Suess books, their online sales soared. Despisers of cancel culture celebrated, as if their position were proved correct. Sad.
Now, if only there were a run on the sales of “Stash.”