Oh, the books you won't see: Dr. Seuss publisher withdraws half-dozen books over racism complaints

It’s inevitable — everyone will be canceled at some point. Who knew they’d come after Dr. Seuss, though? Cindy Lou Who? It’s actually been in the works for a while, and so far it’s only partial. So far.

Six Dr. Seuss books — including “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo” — will stop being published because of racist and insensitive imagery, the business that preserves and protects the author’s legacy said Tuesday.

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr. Seuss Enterprises told The Associated Press in a statement that coincided with the late author and illustrator’s birthday.

“Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families,” it said.

The other books affected are “McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!,” “Scrambled Eggs Super!,” and “The Cat’s Quizzer.”

According to the Associated Press, the company made the decision last month, but it’s not clear when last month. Did it come before Loudoun County’s school district announced its plans to distance their reading programs from Dr. Seuss? Originally reported as a “ban,” the LCPS clarified that they only wanted to put some space between their involvement in “Read Across America Day” and the author whose birthday marks the occasion — which happens to be today:

“Research in recent years has revealed strong racial undertones in many books written/illustrated by Dr. Seuss,” LCPS said in its statement, which links to School Library Journal article from 2018 about the National Education Association focusing its Read Across America efforts “on Diversity Not Dr. Seuss.”

Examples of racial undertones in the books include “anti-Japanese American political cartoons and cartoons depicting African Americans for sale captioned with offensive language,” LCPS wrote.

“Given this research, and LCPS’ focus on equity and culturally responsive instruction, LCPS provided this guidance to schools during the past couple of years to not connect Read Across America Day exclusively with Dr. Seuss’ birthday.”

Both actions are based on an analysis written two years ago by Katie Ishikuza and Ramón Stephens, the latter of the University of California at San Diego. Titled “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, AntiBlackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” the paper posits that not only was Seuss under-representing people of color, but the representations he did make were stereotypical at best and mostly just flat-out racist:

In the fifty Dr. Seuss children’s books, 2,240 human characters are identified. Of the 2,240 characters, there are forty-five characters of color representing 2% of the total number of human characters. The eight books featuring characters of color include: The Cat’s Quizzer: Are YOU Smarter Than the Cat in the Hat?; Scrambled Eggs Super!; Oh, the Places You’ll Go!; On Beyond Zebra; Because a Little Bug Went Ka-choo; If I Ran the Zoo; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street; and Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

Of the forty-five characters of color, forty-three are identified as having characteristics aligning with the definition of Orientalism. Within the Orientalist definition, fourteen people are identified by stereotypical East Asian characteristics and twenty-nine characters are wearing turbans. Characters aligned with Orientalism are sometimes attributed an ethno-racial identity, but are generally situated within a colorblind lens, often from an unspecified nationality, race, or ethnicity. Only two of the forty-five characters are identified in the text as “African” and both align with the theme of anti-Blackness. White supremacy is seen through the centering of Whiteness and White characters, who comprise 98% (2,195 characters) of all characters. Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles. This also remains true in their relation to White characters. Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss’ entire children’s book collection. In addition, some of Dr. Seuss’ most iconic books feature animal or non-human characters that transmit Orientalist, anti-Black, and White supremacist messaging through allegories and symbolism. These books include The Cat in the Hat; The Cat in the Hat Comes Back; The Sneetches; and Horton Hears a Who!

Dr. Seuss Enterprises will continue to publish the latter three books and two of the first eight (Because a Little Bug Went Ka-choo and Oh, the Places You’ll Go!), although they are saying that The Cat in the Hat might be reconsidered at some point. At the moment Dr. Seuss himself is not being abandoned, but that was clearly the point of the Ishikuza-Stephens paper. They spend significant time on Seuss’ history prior to writing the books, especially in his college-humor cartoons and wartime propaganda. And some of it certainly sounds objectionable by today’s standards, but the authors lose the thread on Seuss’ war positions:

In the 1920s, Dr. Seuss published anti-Black and anti-Semitic cartoons in Dartmouth’s humor magazine, the Jack-O-Lantern. He depicted a Jewish couple (captioned “the Cohen’s”) with oversized noses and Jewish merchants on a football field with “Quarterback Mosenblum” refusing to relinquish the ball until a bargain price as been established for the goods being sold (Cohen 208). In the same issue of Jack-O-Lantern, Seuss drew Black male boxers as gorillas. His cartoons, advertisements, and writings often exhibited explicit anti-Black racism. He consistently portrayed Africans and African Americans as monkeys and cannibals—often holding spears, surrounded by flies, and wearing grass skirts. …

Between 1941-43, Seuss published over four hundred political cartoons as the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper, PM (Minear 12). Though Seuss had published four children’s books prior to his work for PM, he didn’t return to children’s book writing until after World War II. Seuss’ cartoons for PM exhibited explicit anti-Japanese racism and depicted Japanese and Japanese Americans as a violent threat to the United States. Japanese people were drawn with pig snouts, as snakes, monkeys, or cats, and referred to as “Japs” (Minear 65, 106, 108, 118-20, 142-43, 149, 212). They were repeatedly captioned with words that replaced “R’s” with “L’s.” For example, a cartoon of a Japanese man coming out of a box labeled “JAP WAR THREAT” is captioned, “Velly Scary Jap-in-the-Box” (Schiffrin 121). His work dehumanizing and vilifying the Japanese fueled paranoia and suspicion of the entire ethnic group during the war. Six days before President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066—to round up and incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps across the United States—Seuss published a cartoon depicting all Japanese Americans on the west coast as saboteurs with explosives in their hands (Minear 65). Another one of his cartoons, published in 1942, depicted John Haynes Holmes, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union, beheaded by a Japanese man (Minear 198). Holmes was a pacifist who was opposed to the United States’ entry into the war, which Seuss vehemently supported. When Seuss received criticism for his cartoon of Holmes, he responded:

“… right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.” (Minear 184)

The work Seuss did before the war is certainly not laudable, especially by today’s standards and perhaps even by the standards of the day. Other examples in the study include copious use of the “n-word,” and other examples of racism in Seuss’ approach to adult humor. Relying on the wartime history of Seuss is unfair, however, given the fact that Japan conducted massive sneak attacks on the US in Pearl Harbor and the Philippines to start the war, which would certainly explain the anger Seuss expressed toward them. Besides, that work was clearly aimed at adults, not children, and has nothing to do with his later work.

The actions by both Dr. Seuss Enterprises and Loudoun County Public Schools look like an attempt at an incremental compromise. They’re giving up a few titles — not their most classic sellers, either — to appease the woke activists who refuse to consider context. It’s not quite book burning, but it’s the next best thing — book erasing.

Will that suffice? Read through the study’s full discussion of the background of Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel) and it’s tough to imagine that it will. If school districts and Seuss’ own organization credit this study and others like it, justifying his continuing publication will become more and more difficult — especially after conceding this ground in the first place. They have acted reasonably in an age where reason isn’t valued, and the only currency is scalps. Until that includes a certain cat and Cindy Lou as well as their creator, this isn’t over.