Dr. Seuss' colorful characters and rhyming whimsy have made the late writer's books a staple in libraries both personal and public.
But Seuss was not without his shortcomings, says Philip Nel, an English professor at Kansas State University. According to Nel, Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat" is rife with racial caricature and "the influence of blackface minstrelsy lingers."
"People don't see the blackface ancestry of the Cat for the same reason that they don't see the blackface ancestry of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, or the Scarecrow. These images are so embedded in the culture that their racialized origins have become invisible," Nel writes in his book "Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books." "'The Cat in the Hat' illuminates how images from the past continue to haunt the present, and discarded racial ideas linger on."
It is through the prism of Dr. Seuss' career that Nel explores the overt and covert forms of racism in literature for the nation's youngest readers. In pointing out the structural racism embedded in institutions like the publishing industry by using sociological data and literary criticism, Nel hopes to right a persistent wrong. He calls on all those involved in the publishing world (reader, author, publisher, scholar and citizen) to fight the biases and prejudices that inhabit children's literature – by raising questions while reading "classics," for instance, or starting a conversation on race, even if it's uncomfortable. In asking that nostalgia not get in the way of critical engagement, Nel's book also proposes changes to the ways we produce, read and teach literature to young people.
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"Well-intentioned people can still act in ways that reinforce racism, unaware that they are doing so," Nel writes. "It's not that individuals within the children's book industry consciously intend to act in ways that sustain institutional racism. It's rather that the system tends to prevent its participants from attaining a full awareness of their role in perpetuating its values. All who work in the field of children's literature need to reflect and strive to do better."
Over the course of 200-plus pages, Nel looks at the different manifestations of structural racism in children's books, from the absence of nonwhite characters to the marketing practice of "whitewashing" book covers. At the end, Nel offers over a dozen suggestions on how to chart a path toward combating racism in the field of children's books.
"I realize that it can be uncomfortable, even painful, to come to terms with the ways in which racism structures our lives and imaginations. But it has to be done," Nel writes. "The failure to discuss a work honestly helps sustain the structures of racism in children's literature and culture. If people who create children's culture fail to engage in self-examination, they risk continuing to transmit the misery of racism to a new generation."
Nel chose Seuss because he is such a canonical children's writer. Seuss, in some of his books, is critical of the abuse of power and critical of discrimination. "If someone like that is nonetheless recycling racial caricature in his work, what does that say about the rest of us? What does it say about all the other children's writers? That's why he's a useful example – because he's so prominent, but also because his work is engaged imperfectly in some of the problems that it also reproduces," Nel says. "Someone like Seuss can do some really great anti-racist work, but also racist work at the same time. And it's not that he is consciously signing on to white supremacy; it's that his imagination developed in a white supremacist culture, and so it's influenced by that, and that shows up in his work in ways that I don't think he intends."
Nel is still optimistic about the future of children's literature: he calls it "optimism as action." "That's what we need, and it's hard to sustain, but OK, so it's hard to sustain – step up," Nel says.
The landscape is changing when it comes to the country's demographics: People of color are becoming the majority. Nel says that if the publishing world wants to have a future, it needs to address racism in its products.
"If there's a generation growing up that doesn't see themselves represented in books for children, they don't grow up to be readers, and if they don't grow up to be readers, where is your market going to go? If publishers wish to remain successful, there's a financial imperative in doing this because their audience is changing. And if they don't recognize that, they're going to have big problems down the road," Nel says.