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Race on Campus

Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.

From: Vimal Patel

Subject: Race on Campus: 'Was the Cat in the Hat Black?' One Scholar's Look at the Racism of Dr. Seuss

Welcome to Race on Campus. Last week, you may have heard “Dr. Seuss is canceled,” after the author’s estate announced it would stop selling six children’s books that contain racial and ethnic stereotypes. Our Vimal Patel interviewed Philip Nel, who studies race in children’s books and directs the children’s literature program at Kansas State University, about how Theodore Seuss Geisel was “a genius and a racist” at once.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

‘A Genius and a Racist’

Philip Nel’s mom gave him a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go in 1990, when he turned 21, with a note that read, “For Phil, I know you’re going places.”

One of those places would be Kansas State University, where he directs the children’s literature program and wrote the 2017 book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? In the book, Nel argues that the lanky and mischievous feline was inspired by blackface minstrelsy.

The distinguished professor’s phone rang off the hook last week, after Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Conservative media called the move the latest example of “cancel culture” run amok; Nel said it highlights the need for diverse children’s books.

Nel spoke with The Chronicle about his research, diversity in children’s books, and Dr. Seuss’s complicated legacy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you summarize the evidence for your argument that The Cat in the Hat was inspired by blackface minstrelsy?
I ask, “was the cat black?” as a way to invite us to think, “What would it mean if the Cat in the Hat was influenced by blackface minstrelsy?” He’s a somewhat ambiguous figure. He’s not like the African characters from the island of Yerka in If I Ran the Zoo [one of the six canned titles]. The Cat is inspired by blackface minstrelsy, like much of 20th-century American popular culture. You can look at Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, the Scarecrow [from The Wizard of Oz]. The movements, the white gloves, the ridiculous neckwear.

Blackface minstrelsy was something that Seuss knew. He wrote and performed in a blackface-minstrel show called Chicopee Surprised when he was a high-school student in Springfield, Mass., and he performed in blackface. You can see evidence of blackface caricature in his cartoons from the ‘20s and ‘30s. It influenced his imagination. When you put those cartoons side by side with the Cat, you can see it. Not only the visual similarities, but the function they serve in the story.

Blackface minstrel characters are many things, but one thing is pretenders to a kind of status that they lack. That is what the Cat is. It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how, he says. And he doesn’t know how. And that’s why he’s funny — and dangerous. He’s also influenced by Krazy Kat, the creation of an African American cartoonist named George Herriman, and by an African American elevator operator named Annie Williams. The Cat is an example of how racist ideas continue to lurk in the culture in ways that we’re not aware of, in ways that we don’t see. We absorb it, and it influences us in ways that we’re not always conscious of.

The Cat in the Hat isn’t one of the books Dr. Seuss Enterprises will stop publishing. I’m assuming that’s because it’s not overtly racist?
Yes, I would say definitely because it’s not overt. I would also say because it’s the brand. Dr. Seuss isn’t just a children’s author. He is a brand. And for the Beginner Books series, which are the books designed for younger readers, written by him and many others, the logo for that is the Cat in the Hat. He’s literally the corporate brand.

Would you want Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing The Cat in the Hat?
I’m glad they have taken the step they have taken. They’ve chosen not to continue profiting from books that circulate egregious stereotypes. What I would really love to see them do is use their Beginner Books brand in the way that Rick Riordan has used his imprint, Disney-Hyperion, to publish books written by members of underrepresented communities. If you really want to do social good, do more than just curate your own catalog. Elevate the voices of nonwhite artists and writers. That would be a more powerful statement than removing The Cat in the Hat. Because that would be investing in the notion that we do need diverse books instead of simply saying … racism is bad for our brand.

There’s a lot of good in Dr. Seuss books. The Sneetches is an argument against prejudice. The Butter Battle Book is a parable about arms races. As a scholar, how do you assess Dr. Seuss’s legacy?

It will be mixed, as it should be. A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that an artist and a writer can be both a genius and a racist, can do brilliant work and be profoundly damaging. Those are not mutually exclusive categories. You need to think about the whole body of work. Which of those works are ones we think would be valuable for the next generation to read and learn from, and which ones might we want to either remove or teach quite differently? It’s OK to acknowledge, as the meme goes, that all your faves are problematic.

Read up.

  • Jacob Morris has led the charge to rename about 40 streets and monuments in New York City after Black people. Morris is white. Though his work is mostly appreciated by the community, he has at least one critic. (The New York Times)
  • Some football players at the University of Texas at Austin said they were forced to stay on the field during the postgame singalong for “The Eyes of Texas,” the institution’s song, which has ties to minstrel shows. When some players chose not to participate, athletics officials told them it could affect their job prospects. (The Texas Tribune)
  • A reader of Slate’s parenting-advice column asks how she should discipline her 9-year-old son who was recently suspended from school for bullying an Asian classmate. (Slate)

—Fernanda

Vimal Patel covers student life, social mobility, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.