Last month, First Lady Melania Trump tried to give a number of Dr. Seuss books to a school library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The books were rejected by librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro, who insisted that Seuss’s illustrations were “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”
It seems that cats don’t really wear hats.
The idea that Seuss’s children’s books are steeped in racism has gone over the heads of generations of children who have managed to delight in Theodore Geisel’s genius without ever wondering whether or not green eggs and ham are some kind of subversive white supremacist metaphor.
The librarian, eager to stick a thumb into Mrs. Trump’s eye, was reprimanded by her district for acting beyond her authority. But Soeiro stuck to her guns, insisting that she had read a bunch of experts who insist that Dr. Seuss drew a lot of racist stuff.
Maligning Dr. Seuss as a racist can only be done under the false light of ‘presentism’
Leaving aside the additional hypocrisy of attempting to malign Mrs. Trump – First Lady Michelle Obama was able to read from Dr. Suess without being enmeshed in a controversy about race – there there is a smidgeon of truth to the librarian’s claim. But there is a great deal more context here that the librarian seems to have overlooked.
Geisel’s alleged racism is a bone of contention this month in another Massachusetts town, the one where Geisel himself was born. A Springfield museum built to honor the local boy made good included a mural with an illustration from the first children’s book Giesel published under his pen name Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
Most of the pictures are inoffensive, but there is one single cartoon of an Asian man matching hackneyed stereotypes that was originally described in the story as a “Chinaman who eats with sticks,” which Giesel himself later changed to a “Chinese man who eats with sticks” when he realized his originally term was a racist slur. But the original illustration remained.
This small offense was enough to raise the ire of a number of writers who withdrew their support of a literary festival because of the mural.
“While this image may have been considered amusing to some when it was published 80 years ago, it is obviously offensive in 2017,” said three writers in an open letter announcing why they had withdrawn their support.
Judge a man by the times of his day, not the standards of his future
But that’s precisely the point. An illustration published 80 years should be judged in its proper historical context, not by the politically correct standards of today.
Historians wrestle with the issue of “presentism,” the problem of interpreting past events from a modern point of view. When we assume that people in history saw things the same way we do, we misinterpret their motives and judge them more harshly than we would if we recognize how their times and their own cultures affected what they thought and believed.
Presentism is often applied to Giesel’s early illustration when he was working as an political cartoonist during World War II. In order to back the Allied war effort, Giesel often depicted the Japanese with grotesquely caricatured features that are painful to now view through a modern lens.
Those cartoons weren’t being drawn for a modern audience: They were aimed at Americans who were in a life-and-death struggle with the Empire of Japan, and they were far more interested in survival against the enemy than racial sensitivity in how that enemy was depicted in drawings.
Given the death and destruction the so-called “greatest generation” faced on daily basis, a 2017 reader ought to be a bit more forgiving if their cartoons are out of step with 21st Century sensibilities.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn also occasionally falls prey to presentism
This is similar to the argument that always rears up whenever someone wants to ban Huckleberry Finn for its copious use of the most offensive racial slur in the English language. But removing that word from Mark Twain’s masterpiece does a serious disservice to a story which is both anti-slavery and anti-racist.
It also created an alternate history in which Americans were willing to enslave other human beings because of the color of their skin, but weren’t willing to use offensive language to describe their slaves. Presentism robs us of our past by denying uncomfortable truths that should never be forgotten.
It’s also noteworthy that Giesel, by changing “Chinaman” to “Chinese man,” was willing to adapt to the mores of his time. That would suggest that were he still alive, he might be embarrassed by the illustration and might make a similar change to future editions.
But to toss out all of his wonderful stories because of anachronistic illustrations would make the world a far less whimsical place.
After all, as Dr. Suess has said:
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.
(Former First Lady Michelle Obama reads a Dr. Seuss book to local school children in the East Room of the White House on January 21, 2015, as part of the ‘Let’s Read, Let’s Move’ initiative, the first lady read ‘Oh The Things You Can Do That Are Good For You’ and danced and exercised with the children. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.)