Nel, who is a professor of English at Kansas State University and director of the children’s literature program there, spoke with me about the book a few years ago. I republished the conversation here earlier this year when it was falsely reported that a Virginia school district had banned the books of Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel.
Nel is back with this post, in which he discusses racism in children’s books and the way the issue has become politicized. At the heart of his piece is this:
“Why not break up with your favorite racist childhood classics? Maybe doing so will break your heart a little. But, to quote a line attributed to Rumi (but which is probably not him), ‘You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.’ ”
For those who want some resources on this issue, you can check out a webpage that Nel created titled: “Seuss, Racism, and Resources for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature.”
By Philip Nel
It is possible to cancel a culture. More than 300 Indigenous languages were once spoken in the United States. Only about 175 of those languages remain today. Colonization, genocide, forced assimilation have all been very effective at canceling cultures.
However, the “cancel culture” that animates professional grievance actors today refers to culture under no threat of cancellation. Dr. Seuss books. Muppets. Disney. White innocence. Because it’s hard to cancel a dominant culture. “Cancel culture” is a white-supremacist fantasy that creates villains and then mobilizes anger against the villains it has imagined.
To censor anti-racist critiques, cancel culture hysterics describe anti-racism as censorship. To attack the freedom to fight oppression, they claim that withdrawing racist children’s books is somehow an assault on freedom. This is doublespeak, the culture-war version of former president Donald Trump’s “big lie.”
Dr. Seuss Enterprises ceased publishing six Dr. Seuss books. But these six books are not censored, not banned, not illegal. I own all six and have spoken of them very publicly — on television, sometimes holding the books up to the screen. No government agent has yet appeared at my door demanding that I surrender my copies. And 50 other Seuss books are still in print.
The lie of cancel culture depends upon nostalgia. As Walter Benjamin once observed, children’s culture evokes what is both cherished and lost, a combination that has the potential to be make us reactionary.
It’s easy to inspire a reactionary response. When you point out racism in a beloved artifact of childhood, people can feel personally attacked. Children’s books are signposts not just to our childhoods but to the formation of our selves. Examining them critically can feel akin to a violation, because they reside deep at the core of the “me” in each of us.
Those who work themselves into hysterics over Dr. Seuss or Mr. Potato Head nurture this feeling of being personally attacked. They amplify nostalgia for an allegedly “innocent” childhood, when Dr. Seuss was not political, life was simpler and America was “great.” This is what Svetlana Boym calls restorative nostalgia — a longing for a unified, uncomplicated past, an “enchanted world with clear borders and values.” However, as Boym warns, “Only false memories can be totally recalled.”
We instead need what Boym calls reflective nostalgia, which dwells in memory’s imperfections, exploring the ambivalence, the complexity, the pain that restorative nostalgia strives to erase. We must show people that deeply felt memories do not authorize indifference toward others and do not remove the need for reflection. We must ask, “What if something we loved as children might cause harm today?” Indeed, “What if it caused harm then?” What would it mean to acknowledge pain?
As James Baldwin wisely observed, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Pain offers one path toward reflection. The hate mail I get is full of pain expressed as aggression. The force with which these writers blame me, or liberals, or academics, or women, or Black and Brown people is a way of locating responsibility for their own pain in others and avoiding looking inward.
To steer people toward reflective nostalgia, we need to break the addiction to cancel culture conspiracy theories. These are addictive because conspiratorial thinking feels like critical thinking, but better: The conspiracist can put the puzzle pieces together, see the patterns clearly because he’s smarter than you, better informed than you, and thus justified in his anger. Or so goes the illogical logic of the conspiracy theorist.
To break the addiction, we might begin by exposing the toxicity of the ingredients. Restorative nostalgia is the emotional fuel and thickening agent for cancel culture. But it does not act alone. It blends five cultural myths into a “rational” alibi for an irrational, fact-free fantasy of grievance and rage. To cultivate a healthier, reflective nostalgia, let’s dismantle these myths.
First, we must reject the notion that children’s culture must inspire only pure-hearted affection for its simplicity and “innocence.” It’s better to develop more complicated relationships with what we loved as children. Embrace Dr. Seuss’s poetic brilliance but reject the toxicity of his racism or his sexism. When you embrace all of it, you poison yourself and others.
Second, unlearn popular myths about history and social progress — myths that defend Dr. Seuss (born in 1904) as a “man of his time” or that say, “That’s how they thought back then.” Who is this they? All people everywhere? All White people? At all times in any given place, all people did not think alike. You can test this thesis right now: Do all people think alike in 2021?
The “they thought that way then” claim presents past racism as inevitable. But racism is not inevitable. As Robin Bernstein notes, “In the United States, the range of racial beliefs has changed relatively little from the nineteenth century to the present.” The proportion of people who think particular thoughts has changed, but the “array of thinkable thoughts” has not. In the past and the present, both ordinary and extraordinary people have opposed white supremacy; both remarkable and unremarkable people have supported it.
In the same period that these withdrawn Dr. Seuss books were published, quite different portraits of people of African descent appear in the children’s books of Black writers such as Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, and of White writers such as Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward.
Third, we must unlearn the “either/or” idea of racism. Dr. Seuss does both racist and anti-racist work, often at the same period in his career. The 1940s cartoons are both racist against the Japanese and support civil rights for African Americans; the 1950s children’s books include the racist caricature of “If I Ran the Zoo,” but also the anti-discrimination messages of “Horton Hears a Who!” and the first version of “The Sneetches.” Dr. Seuss is recycling racist caricature at the same time he’s striving to oppose racist ways of thinking.
This fact confuses people who think you’re either on Team Racism or you’re on Team Anti-Racism. However, racism is not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Starting in childhood, we absorb racist images and ideas without our knowledge and without our consent. Dr. Seuss was not aware of how thoroughly his imagination was steeped in a white-supremacist culture.
My awareness is only partial, too. When preparing to teach the book in a graduate class on 20th-century picture books, I read Helen Bannerman’s “Little Black Sambo” for the first time. And I realized that I already knew this story. Had I read her version? Or an edition with more grotesque racist caricature? What other half-remembered stories lurk in my subconscious?
Fourth, another ingredient of cancel culture that we need to unlearn is the notion that racism depends upon perception or intent. Many have said that Dr. Seuss didn’t intend racism in his caricatures, and that his anti-racist works prove that. I agree: I don’t think he saw these images as harmful or intended harm. But racism doesn’t depend upon perception or intent. It’s very easy to participate in white supremacy without awareness or active malice.
Fifth, because any culture you grow up in seems natural and inevitable, sometimes you simply don’t see. On the morning of March 2, I heard that Dr. Seuss Enterprises was withdrawing these six books, via a text from my friend, professor Sarah Park Dahlen. And I immediately thought: “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “If I Ran the Zoo,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super!” will be withdrawn for their racist caricatures. They were.
But what were the other three? I saw “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” on the list, and thought: Well, Dr. Seuss often uses exoticism and foreignness as a punchline. Were there examples in these books? Yes, there were. But “On Beyond Zebra!”? That’s a personal favorite, one of Dr. Seuss’s most avant-garde books. It invents an entirely new alphabet, reminding young readers that this language they’re learning to read is arbitrary and slightly ridiculous. What could possibly be objectionable?
In rereading, I realized the book’s caricature of a Middle Eastern man was … a caricature of a Middle Eastern man. I had not seen the illustration as a caricature until Dr. Seuss Enterprises pointed it out.
I’ve written a lot about Dr. Seuss, and about racism in his work. I’ve written about blackface minstrelsy’s influence on “The Cat in the Hat.” My book “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” began the conversation that led to Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision. You’d think I would have noticed. I hadn’t. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t see what I didn’t see.
When you grow up in a racist culture, you won’t see all the racism — it’s just part of the world in which you live. If you have only ever seen a polluted ocean, then that’s what an ocean looks like. Only when someone points out the pollution in the ocean or the racism in the culture, do you notice. And begin to ask questions.
But cancel culture nostalgists never ask or answer the questions. What in the culture are they defending? And why not instead celebrate books that, instead of perpetuating harm, represent people of any heritage with respect?
Why not break up with your favorite racist childhood classics? Maybe doing so will break your heart a little.
But, to quote a line attributed to Rumi (but which is probably not him), “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.”
That “breaking” is what reflective nostalgia allows. It allows you to reassess what you once loved. It allows you to meet new favorite books celebrating the diversity of human experience.
That’s not cancellation. That’s cultivation. That’s healing. That’s love.