For this year’s Seuss birthday, an excerpt from Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017). The thesis: Support a US Anti-Racist Education Act because racism is a national emergency that threatens our democracy.
But first, and with thanks to The Conscious Kid for keeping the conversation going, here are some …
answers to questions about Seuss and racism
- Valerie Strauss, “No, a Virginia school district didn’t ban Dr. Seuss books. Here’s what really happened,” Washington Post, 26 Feb. 2021. This reprints my 2017 interview with the Washington Post.
- Philip Nel, The Cat, Seuss, and Race (2 March 2020). In which I reprint a program note I wrote for the Adventure Theatre Company’s 2019 production of The Cat in the Hat.
- Philip Nel, What to Do with Dr. Seuss? (2 March 2018). In which I invite you to think about precisely that.
- Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (Talks @ Google version). The first 8 minutes of my Talk @ Google offers a condensed version of the “Dr. Seuss” chapter of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?
- 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,” in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature (2019). Ishizuka and Stephens are the duo behind The Conscious Kid. Follow them on Instagram and Twitter!
Second, a brief excerpt from “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature,” which is the conclusion to Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (2017) — a book written prior to the ascension of Trump to the US Presidency, but published during the regime’s first six months.
Support a US Anti-Racist Education Act because racism is a national emergency that threatens our democracy.
As Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election has made plain, pandering to racists can propel a sociopathic con artist to the presidency. His openly bigoted speeches and the 46 percent of voters who supported him have made racist ideas mainstream again, and have led other countries to worry about the stability of the United States. Since his election, hate crimes have been on the rise. Trump’s White House has included White supremacist Steve Bannon (former chairman of Breitbart News, a racist, misogynist, xenophobic “news” outlet) as senior advisor; White supremacist Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and Islamophobe Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin and disinterest in maintaining the NATO alliance could destabilize Europe, itself facing the rise of comparably dangerous nativist figures—from the forces behind Brexit (Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson), to Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Timo Soini in Finland, and Viktor Orban in Hungary. The spread of racist political parties, to say nothing of the many other dangers humanity faces, amplifies the danger of elevating to power a thin-skinned demagogue who flirts openly with using America’s nuclear arsenal, and who sought to expand access to nuclear weapons abroad. Within the United States, President Trump will be able to loosen restrictions on gun purchases, and appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, revoke gays’ recently won right to marry, and roll back civil rights for people of color. He can ban Muslims from entering the country, and advise the Justice Department to harass those groups and organizations he deems threatening.
Trump’s presidency, his supporters, and the racist violence they enable all demand a response—an Anti-Racist Education Act. While this is obviously not something a Trump administra- tion would consent to, it is something his successor could pursue. There is a precedent for such an initiative. Following the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first space satellite (Sputnik) in 1957, the US government responded with the National Defense Education Act (1958), intended to improve postsecondary edu- cation so that America could compete with Soviet technology. A federal program along the lines of the National Defense Education Act, but devoted to fighting racism at all levels of education, would strengthen our democracy and provide an example to others working to stop the international racist right. By underwriting the purchase of diverse children’s books and anti-racism education, a national anti-racist program would be patriotic, affirming America’s commitment to its ideals, helping children resist the Trump Effect, and decreasing the likelihood that the next generation will need to cope with its revival. As Paula Young Lee puts it, “Even as far-right populism continues its global rise, the written word has become vibrant with danger precisely because it has the potential to challenge the mono-think tendencies of hyper-partisanship and authoritarianism.”
Third, some context.
When I wrote that in 2016, there were some key differences with the published version.
For instance, the copyedited manuscript begins this section as follows:
As Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has made plain, pandering to racists can nearly propel a sociopathic con artist to the presidency. Had Trump succeeded, he would have posed a threat to the stability and security of the United States and the world. Indeed, his openly bigoted speeches and the 40 per cent of voters who supported him have made racist ideas mainstream again, and led other countries to worry about the stability of the U.S. However, had Trump’s White supremacist campaign led him into the White House, the prognosis would be much more dire.
At the copyediting phase, in the wake of the election, I had to revise that. The situation of course is now much more dire. This country has an entire political party committed to a Big Lie, White Supremacy, and the pursuit of power by any means they can.
The truth is one way to fight the Big Lie and all the little lies that underwrite it. Teach children the truth about the history of this country, and not the White-supremacist “land of opportunity” / “land of immigrants” lies that so many of us grew up learning. Instead, teach Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You (2020). Teach Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Jean Mendoza, and Debbie Reese’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People (2019). Check out The Conscious Kid’s Resources page for more ideas.
We need to raise a new generation less susceptible to the lies currently infecting the minds of at least 74 million adults — those who, in the 2020 presidential election supported a narcissistic, White-supremacist autocrat who facilitated a mass death event.
- How to diversify the classics. For real. (Oxford University Press Blog, 11 Feb. 2020)
- Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature (ChLAQ) (11 Dec. 2018)
- Context, Privilege, and Pain (26 Nov. 2018)
- 7 Questions We Should Ask About Children’s Literature (Oxford University Press Blog, 19 Sept. 2017)
- Racism & Seuss: It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. (A Twitter Essay) (12 Aug. 2017)
- Refugee Stories for Young Readers (Public Books, 23 Mar. 2017)
- The Archive of Childhood, Part 2: The Golliwog (13 Jan. 2015). A revised version of this blog post appears as part of the introduction (“Race, Racism, and the Cultures of Childhood”) to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017).
- “The Boundaries of Imagination”; or, the All-White World of Children’s Books, 2014 (17 March 2014). On the occasion of the New York Times pieces by Christopher Myers and Walter Dean Myers, a collection of information and essays about the fight for diversity in children’s literature.
- Disagreement, Difference, Diversity: A Talk by Christopher Myers (24 Oct. 2015). A few thoughts and notes on an excellent talk by Christopher Myers. I quote from his talk in the book.
- Regarding the Pain of Racism (4 Apr. 2015). Reflections on an observation by Naomi Murakawa, and on my challenges as a White male scholar writing about oppressions I have not experienced. A few slivers of this appear in “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature,” which is the Conclusion to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017).
- Dr. Seuss
- The Cat, Seuss, and Race (2 Mar. 2020). A program note written for a production of The Cat in the Hat.
- “The Cat Is Out of the Bag” (2 Mar. 2019). Encouragement 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” (Research on Diversity in Youth Literature).
- What to Do with Dr. Seuss? (2 Mar. 2018)
- Seuss’s Matilda: Horton’s Ancestor (2 Mar. 2017)
- How Do We Stop the Trump on the Stump? The Truth Is in Seuss! (28 March 2016). From my ears to the American electorate. (Results of the warning were, um, mixed. At best.)
- Seuss on Film (2 March 2016). Includes four clips of Seuss: Unusual Occupations (1940), Making SNAFU (c. 1943), To Tell the Truth (1958), and footage from a New Zealand schoolroom (1964).
- No Seuss Better Than Faux Seuss (27 July 2015). On bad imitation Seuss verse, contrasted with good imitation — provided via audio of David Rakoff’s excellent “Samsa and Seuss.”
- Six Spots of Seuss News (2 Mar. 2015). On What Pet Should I Get?, Elana Kagan’s citation of One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960) in a 2015 Supreme Court decision written by Justice Elena Kagan, Dr. Seuss advertising art from 1936, and a Dr. Seuss rap quiz!
- Oh, the Quotations You’ll Forge! (2 Mar. 2014). Seuss’s pithy verse is very quotable. Unfortunately, people have a habit of attributing things to him that he never said. This post exposes some fake Seuss, and gives you plenty of quotations that he actually did say.
- Happy birthday to Dr. Seuss! A guest post by Charles D. Cohen (2 Mar. 2013). Birthday reflections from Seussologist Charles Cohen (The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss). Quotes some original verse by Seuss, including “Pentellic Bilge for Bennett Cerf’s Birthday” (1940).
- How to Mispronounce “Dr. Seuss” (6 Feb. 2013). Also: how to pronounce “Dr. Seuss.”
- I Am the Lorax. I Speak for the Theeds? (3 Mar. 2012). Some thoughts on The Lorax film and its attendant advertising.
- Dr. Seuss: children’s books “have a greater potential for good or evil, than any other form of literature on earth.” (1 Mar. 2012). A 1960 essay by Seuss on writing for children.
- Dr. Seuss on “conditioned laughter,” racist humor, and why adults are “obsolete children” (16 Jan. 2012). A 1952 essay by Seuss on humor.
- Seussology (15 Jan. 2012): On my graduate-level “Dr. Seuss” course.
- Oh, the Thinks That He Thought! Some of Seuss’s Lesser-Known Works (2 Mar. 2011): My post for Dr. Seuss’s birthday in 2011.
- You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (20 Dec. 2010): 15 versions of the song.
- Corporate Seuss; or, Oh, the Things You Can Sell! (21 Aug. 2010). Ted Geisel was first famous for advertising, not children’s books.
- Fight Trumpism
- “Fight Fascism. Vote Clinton.” (Dedicate Your No-Trump Vote, 30 Sept. 2016)
- Surviving Trumpism. Restoring Democracy. (12 Nov. 2016). I wrote this less than a week after the 2016 election.
- The Public University in an Age of Alt-Facts: Remarks on Receiving a Higuchi Award (13 Dec. 2016)
- “Resolutions for a New Academic Year: A survival guide for higher education in perilous times” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 Sept. 2017)
- RESIST! Year #2 begins NOW. (7 Nov. 2017)
- Why Trump Jails Crying Children. How We Resist. (A Twitter Essay) (21 June 2018)
- RESIST! A mix for 2019 (30 Jan. 2019)
- Kansas’ Distinguished Professors call for end to International Student Ban (11 July 2020)
- A Democracy, If We Can Keep It (29 Aug. 2020)
- This Mix Kills Fascists (30 Sept. 2020). My RESIST! mix for 2020.
- Children’s Literature vs. Trumpism
- Refugee Stories for Young Readers (Public Books, 23 Mar. 2017). Francesca Sanna’s The Journey and other contemporary refugee tales for children.
- Donald and the Golden Crayon (20 Oct. 2018). The first book to adapt Crockett Johnson’s children’s books for political satire.
- Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature (ChLAQ) (11 Dec. 2018). Blog post announcing special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly on this subject, including excerpts from my introduction.
- Harold vs. Donald, round 2 (9 Sept. 2019)
- “Trump is a liar. Tell children the truth” (Public Books, 15 Oct. 2019). See also the related blog post on the essay.
- “A Manifesto for Radical Children’s Literature (and an Argument Against Radical Aesthetics)” (Barnboken: tidskrift för barnlitteraturforskning/Journal of Children’s Literature Research no. 42, Dec. 2019)