A Review of Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2017
The recent opening of the newly renovated museum dedicated to the work of Dr. Seuss in Springfield, Massachusetts, has brought attention to a more controversial aspect of the beloved author and illustrator’s work, his unthinking acceptance of racial stereotypes in some books and early political cartoons.
At the same time, the just–released book by Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (Oxford University Press, 2017) analyzes the implicit racism in much of children’s literature partly through the lens of Dr. Seuss, arguing that his famous zany and white-gloved cat is rooted in appropriation and distortion of black culture.
Yet Nel’s book reflects the same oblique racism of which he accuses other authors.
He argues that the omission of black characters from specific genres and from children’s literature in general constitutes an even more insidious type of racism than overtly degrading or stereotypical imagery. He terms this “the destructive fantasy of whitewashing,” “color-blind racism,” and “Unmarked Whiteness.” Yet there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism throughout the book, if one reads it with the same careful attention which Nel demands of Dr. Seuss’s readers.
The book has few references to antisemitism, in spite of the fact that at least part of its subject is Dr. Seuss, who, as a leftist cartoonist in the 1930s and 40s, dedicated much of his work to issuing provocative and persistent warnings about threats to Jews. Dr. Seuss was, to use the menacing term from the McCarthy era, a “premature anti-fascist.” A descendent of German immigrants to this country, Theodore Geisel, a.k.a Dr. Seuss, was a loud and vocal opponent of isolationism between the two World Wars, and of the antisemitism and xenophobia of the America First movement. Much of his work attacked its most popular proponents, including Charles Lindbergh and Jew-baiting radio star Father Coughlin. (Sophie Gilbert wrote an excellent piece about this work for The Atlantic Monthly’s website in January 2017.)
Unfortunately, Dr. Seuss also included racist depictions of the Japanese in some of his cartoons, and, most disturbingly, advocated the internment of Japanese Americans enacted by Franklin Roosevelt in the infamous executive order 9066. Most Americans supported this act, which in no way excuses Geisel’s failure to oppose it. Most Americans also supported maintaining strict immigration quotas, even though doing so doomed many of Europe’s Jews. Most Americans resisted desegregation of the armed forces, and some objected to working alongside women or African Americans in the defense industry during the War. Geisel/Seuss, a progressive and in many ways a visionary, should have seen beyond his own prejudices.
Most of his caricatures of the Japanese, however, do not depict the cruelly interned Japanese-Americans, abandoned by the country which they supported and loved, but rather the militarists, including Tojo, who forced Japan into a brutal assault on much of Asia and an alliance with Nazi Germany. In some cartoons, Hitler and Tojo appear together, both as physically grotesque figures. Should the cartoonist not have portrayed the leaders of the Axis powers this way? Unlike many Americans, he was dedicated to sounding an alarm against an imminent assault on democracy. In Richard Minear’s 1999 book, Dr. Seuss Went to War, as well as on the University of California at San Diego’s Dr. Seuss website, (http://library.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dswenttowar/index.html) one can browse dozens of Geisel’s cartoons attacking fascism, antisemitism, isolationism, and racism against African Americans. Nel only briefly alludes to the existence of these cartoons, minimizing their importance. In one, a benign and maternal figure reads to two young children a book entitled Adolf the Wolf, reassuring them that “the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones,…but those were Foreign Children and it really didn’t matter.” In another, a sad bird-like creature with an Uncle Sam hat sits with its legs in the stocks, forced to hold a sign reading, “I am part Jewish,” as well as a plaque signed by Charles Lindbergh and Gerald Nye, of the notorious Nye commission opposing aid to the Allies.
As part of Nel’s argument that the American crime of slavery has been sanitized in children’s books, he chooses to emphasize the supposedly broad popularity of Holocaust themed books for children. He cites the existence of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and the absence of a parallel museum about African American slavery, as an example of unopposed racism, even quoting Susan Sontag, who was, of course, Jewish, and therefore subtly deflecting potential criticism of this viewpoint. He fails to note that many observers, including Jews, have argued that prioritizing awareness of the Holocaust as the sum total of familiarity with Jewish culture and history may be dangerous, constructing an image of Jews as perpetual victims. While Nel acknowledges the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, he actually complains that it pays insufficient attention to the history of slavery. One could as easily argue that, in aiming to present the true breadth of African American culture and history, the museum’s goal is to educate visitors who may be only minimally aware of anything but slavery in the history of African Americans. At any rate, why does Nel feel the need to pit historical awareness of the Holocaust against the full recognition of the enslavement of African people? His book is thoroughly researched and in many respects illuminating, especially for those readers who may simply have assumed that an absence of black characters in children’s books is an innocent and insignificant oversight. Yet he completely avoids the reality that most children’s books about Jews, especially those reviewed in prominent journals, tend to emphasize either the Holocaust or Jewish holidays and that Jewish characters whose ethnicity is simply one part of their identity within a larger narrative are relatively rare. Nel reports his own childhood identification with the black child protagonist Peter of Ezra Jack Keats’s (Jacob Ezra Katz) The Snowy Day, yet this unremarkable status of a child who is black, but is otherwise a representative of childhood with whom all readers can identify, is not one usually afforded Jewish characters in picture books.
Nel also attacks the concept of the United States as “a nation of immigrants,” which is, of course, a large part of the experience of Jews, but not exclusively of Jews, in this country. This is short-sighted and counter-productive; emphasizing the foreign background of many Americans is generally advanced by progressives, people who seek to normalize and elevate the contributions of immigrants. Especially now, when Hispanics, Muslims, and members of other immigrant groups may be threatened and despised, Nel’s interpretation of this vision as
Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons are not beyond reproach, but he deserves credit for his principled stand against an evil which many Americans preferred to ignore. Nel’s serious work of scholarship enlightens readers about the author’s flaws, seeing them as representative of blindness to racism by authors and readers. As Dr. Seuss entitled one of his Beginner Books, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut. Let’s not do that, Professor Nel. We all have a lot to learn from one another.