The Use of Dr. Seuss Text -
Should his racist cartoons stop us from using his literature?
This year marks the 20th year of the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day. This event is celebrated in many schools across America on March 2nd on Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Some schools, like my son's’ school, celebrated Read Across America during the whole week surrounding Dr. Seuss’ birthday. The school, where I am the literacy coach, had a big family event to celebrate; it is one of our highest attended school events each year.
During a professional learning community (PLC), a meeting where educators collaborate to improve students’ academic performance, I was asked by a teacher, “Should we even celebrate this? Wasn’t he racist?” Another teacher replied, “What are you talking about? I love Dr. Seuss. We can’t stop using his books.”
Before Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, became a beloved author by children and adults, he drew racist cartoons during World War II depicting Japanese citizens negatively which promoted propaganda about them. He also drew stereotypical cartoons of African Americans depicting them as savages.
What should we do? Isn’t his children’s books great? As a parent, I read Dr. Seuss’ stories to my children and his stories were some of their favorites. As an educator, I have used his books during my lessons when I was teaching middle school. (Yes, middle school students can benefit from picture books.) As an adjunct instructor IU School of Education at IUPUI, I have my students read The Butter Battle Book to learn how they can use this text with both elementary and secondary students when they are teaching about war. In the article, “Children’s literature expert discusses the enduring value of ‘Dr. Seuss”, Ann Neely, associate professor of education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development, shared; “This readability is a key part of the enduring power of Dr. Seuss literature. Children can read Dr. Seuss books many, many times without tiring of the rhythms, the plots or the art. The moral lessons in Dr. Seuss stories also contribute to the learning experiences for older children.”
Why does it have to be use his text and ignore the racist cartoons or don’t use his text because of the racist cartoons? Parent Steve Wong who is the curator at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor at Pasadena City College shared in “Kids Use ‘Dr. Seuss Week’ To Teach Classmates About His Racist Cartoons” that even though his wife Leslie and he read Dr. Seuss books to their children, they also taught them about “Dr. Seuss’ racist cartoons having a role in swaying public opinion.” This led to Wong’s children sharing this information with their classmates. I agree with Mr. Wong, it should not be an either/or but both. It provides students with a culturally responsive education. We also have to keep in mind when it is developmentally appropriate to talk to children about Dr. Seuss’ racist cartoons. My twins sons are six and now is not the time to have this conversation, but when they are older, I will discuss the cartoons with them.
The key to fostering a love of reading in a child is to engage him or her in text and the bottom line is Dr. Seuss’ books are engaging and memorable. The rhyming and patterns help children when they are learning to read. There is no need to hide Dr. Seuss’ earlier cartoons; it provides an opportunity for a teachable moment when the time is right. It’s an opportunity to share that we all have flaws. It is an opportunity to discuss if a person can change and stop being racist. These are important conversations to have with children. Many researchers have shared that they believe Seuss tried to make up for his early cartoons with the lessons in his later books. Unfortunately, he is not here for us to ask him, so we all have to make that judgment for ourselves. _Shawnta S. Barnes
An event can change the trajectory of a branch on a family tree.
Willa Lenard, a schoolteacher marries Jack Hancock, a sharecropper. They make a family in Williston, South Carolina. Their oldest daughter, my Aunt Sayde, gets thrown in a holding cell for the crime of looking at a dress in a ‘for whites only’ store window. Her father and uncles had to shoot her way out of captivity. Their oldest son, my Uncle Robert, strikes his schoolteacher, a white man, rendering him unconscious. For this, he had to leave Williston immediately lest he is lynched.
Uncle Robert makes it to Buffalo, New York and subsequently paves the way for his immediate family to leave sharecropping and the Jim Crow south. Grandma Willa’s youngest daughter Pearle, my mother, would leave Williston at age 11 and never look back. This forced migration would change the trajectory and dynamics of this branch of the family forever.
New York would also disrupt family patterns. Grandpa Jack would find it hard to find work in the industrial North of the 1920s. He would go back down South to try his luck in the burgeoning housing boom in Florida. He went alone. He would perish in the hurricane made famous in Zora Neale Hurston’s book; ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’. Grandma Willa would never again find a teaching job; she would become a maid for white folks in Rochester, New York.
Jack and Willa’s children would adjust and adopt the ways of Northern Blacks, thus, estranging them from their South Carolina family. My mother would tell me nothing about her aunties, uncles, and cousins. It wasn’t until I wrote my namesake, Uncle George Hancock, in 2003 that I learned that I had relatives in South Carolina.
I find it interesting that branches on a family tree can have differing world views based on migration and geography.