What About Racist Childhood Classic Books?

The Washington Post has an article, dated 16 May 2021, that I had to read. It is under the byline of Valerie Strauss who is an education writer who producing The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. 

Most of the article quotes a post by Philip Nel, who is the author of “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: the Hidden Racism in Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books” a 2017 book that helped launch a conversation about racism in children’s books that led to a recent decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing six of the prolific author’s books. Nel, is a professor of English at Kansas State University and director of the children’s literature program there.

Philip Nel

Mr Nel’s post is quite long quite long, so I have produces excerpts below.

“Because any culture you grow up in seems natural and inevitable, sometimes you simply don’t see. On the morning of March 2, I heard that Dr. Seuss Enterprises was withdrawing these six books, via a text from my friend, professor Sarah Park Dahlen. And I immediately thought: “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “If I Ran the Zoo,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super!” will be withdrawn for their racist caricatures. They were.

But what were the other three? I saw “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” on the list, and thought: Well, Dr. Seuss often uses exoticism and foreignness as a punchline. Were there examples in these books? Yes, there were. But “On Beyond Zebra!”? That’s a personal favorite, one of Dr. Seuss’s most avant-garde books. It invents an entirely new alphabet, reminding young readers that this language they’re learning to read is arbitrary and slightly ridiculous. What could possibly be objectionable?

In rereading, I realized the book’s caricature of a Middle Eastern man was … a caricature of a Middle Eastern man. I had not seen the illustration as a caricature until Dr. Seuss Enterprises pointed it out.

I’ve written a lot about Dr. Seuss, and about racism in his work. I’ve written about blackface minstrelsy’s influence on “The Cat in the Hat.” My book “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” began the conversation that led to Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision. You’d think I would have noticed. I hadn’t. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t see what I didn’t see.

When you grow up in a racist culture, you won’t see all the racism — it’s just part of the world in which you live. If you have only ever seen a polluted ocean, then that’s what an ocean looks like. Only when someone points out the pollution in the ocean or the racism in the culture, do you notice. And begin to ask questions.

But cancel culture nostalgists never ask or answer the questions. What in the culture are they defending? And why not instead celebrate books that, instead of perpetuating harm, represent people of any heritage with respect?

Why not break up with your favorite racist childhood classics? Maybe doing so will break your heart a little.

But, to quote a line attributed to Rumi (but which is probably not him), “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.”

That “breaking” is what reflective nostalgia allows. It allows you to reassess what you once loved. It allows you to meet new favorite books celebrating the diversity of human experience.

That’s not cancellation. That’s cultivation. That’s healing. That’s love.”

I can remember that as a child, my mother used to read classics to me, and among these ‘classics’ were several books by Joel Chandler Harris, whose books were produced in the 1880’s and were based on stories told by southern US plantation residents.  Many of the stories are didactic, much like those of Aesop’s Fables. Uncle Remus is a kindly old freedman who serves as the principal story-telling device, passing on the folktales like the traditional West African story-teller to children gathered around him. Br’er Rabbit (“Brother Rabbit”) is the main character of the stories, a character prone to tricks and troublemaking who is often opposed by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. In one tale, Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br’er Rabbit comes along, he addresses the ‘tar baby’ amiably but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the tar baby’s lack of manners, punches it and kicks it, and becomes stuck.

I certainly agree with Nel’s comment that when you grow up in a racist culture, one doesn’t see the racism. Was my mother a racist? Yes, I have no doubt. And while, as a child I loved Br’er Rabbit’s exploits, I didn’t read Harris’ books to my children.

2 thoughts on “What About Racist Childhood Classic Books?

  1. I worry how easily this banning of clever beloved Seuss books as overtly racist has taken place. His caricatures of people, of cats, of grinches, of little white boys and girls, of everything and everybody are full of wit. They do not malign. There is no intention to do so. Mulberry Street was the pure genius of a rich imagination. C’mon!

    • I certainly am not in favour of banning any of the books mentioned, and I don’t think that Professor Nel was in favour of banning, either. He wanted to start a conversation about them, and says he was surprised when the publisher ceased publication of the six. As to the Uncle Remus books, while at 10 years old, I loved the characters’ antics, I could see that in the depiction of black characters and their environment, there was element of assumed inferiority. At ten years old, I could say to myself, “That’s the way it is.” Were I to read them again now, I would say, “That’s how it was a hundred and forty years ago, and we’ve made some progress since.” So for me, it’s about choosing the right book for the child, and that has to be a parental decision.

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