“The Cat Is Out of the Bag”

At left: Dr. Seuss, from “Four Places Not to Hide While Growing Your Beard” (Life, 15 Nov. 1929). At right: Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957).

As we reconsider the works of Dr. Seuss on what would have been his (well, Theodor Seuss Geisel’s) 115th birthday, I encourage you to take a look at Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens’ “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” just published in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature last month. To give you a sense of the article’s impact, it has been downloaded over 18,000 times (as of this writing) and is mentioned in an NPR story.

I don’t have anything further to add, having written quite a bit on Seuss – including the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat in the Hat. You can find that in the title chapter of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (2017), which will be out in paperback on the 29th of this month. The paperback includes a new Afterword on “Why Adults Refuse to Admit Racist Content in the Children’s Books They Love” – in which I read some of the hate mail that the hardcover inspired, with the goal of educating people who are reluctant to reflect on their “problematic faves” from childhood.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)
Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (paperback out 29 Mar. 2019)

Posts related to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, including glimpses of the work in progress:

Some previous posts on Seuss


  1. Reply

    If you have received hate mail about your book, that is terrible. However, I object to the really patronizing tone of your allusion to people who obstinately refuse to share your convictions. Why the quotes for “problematic faves?” Many of us do have “faves” which are “problematic” in many ways. Let’s add some adult authors: Tolstoy, Dickens, George Eliot (T.S. Eliot: really problematic!), Cather, Ellison,Richard Wright, Woolf, everyone who wrote before the 21st century, and some of those, too.
    There’s plenty of problematic content in Dr. Seuss. He was also one of the most courageous and outspoken opponents of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and isolationism in the inter-War years, when those positions were extremely unpopular. You only briefly mention that in your book.
    As for the new study, it’s easy to enumerate his racist cartoons and to then give the same weight to those in his puerile Dartmouth humor magazine as to his later career.
    Recent events in the YA twitter wars should make us all cautious about assuming that our own work is above reproach.

  2. Reply

    Please feel free to remove the quotation marks from around “problematic faves.” They are there not to ironize the term, but rather to acknowledge it as a (very useful) slang expression for beloved artworks that replicate oppressive structures. We all have problematic faves, whether we are willing to acknowledge that fact or not.

    My book notes both his opposition to and his participation in xenophobia — as I say in my book, he opposed it and reproduced its stereotypes not only in his World War II political cartoons, but also in his 1950s children’s books.

    Also, as someone whose work has received ample reproach, I do not assume my work is above reproach. Indeed, I’m trying to figure out how these two paragraphs conveyed that sentiment.

  3. Don Reynolds


    Sitting on a campus with a Department of Psychological Sciences, it would be instructive to hear their observations on how bullies inoculate themselves against criticism by claiming that people of whiteness, white privilege, and now white fragility are not able to be sensitive enough to recognize racist behavior. Women, Black and Native Americans have been saying for years that white folks (especially males) can’t understand their pain.
    This pattern is replicated by “The Cat Is Out of the Bag” researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens who write: “Almost every book and biography on Seuss’s work to-date has been done by white researchers. As scholars of color, this article is unique in that it is written by members of groups Seuss explicitly degraded and dehumanized across his hundreds of racist works. We also write from our positionality as scholar-parents of children of color, and discuss how that informs our work and advocacy–not only a personal level, but a national policy level.” https://www.instagram.com/p/Bt4ZEecA_N9/?utm_source=ig_twitter_share&igshid=ri5v5jnedsdq

    Well, as Mary Richards said on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, “you don’t have to be a chicken to recognize an egg.”

    Isn’t research meant to uncover irrefutable factual information that makes its point(s) on which we all can agree?
    It would seem that, for researchers to claim that “we know what others can not possibly know and feel,” may negate the validity of their conclusions to nothing more than just personal opinions.

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