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Thinking (Historically) about Dr. Seuss

suzanne_mccorma
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The controversy surrounding six of Theodor Geisel’s books that will no longer be published or licensed by Dr. Seuss Enterprises has led several of my former students to reach out and reflect upon the brief time we spent studying the illustrator’s World War II-era cartoons. Every semester my US History II students use the digital collection Dr. Seuss Went to War as part of our discussion of race on the home front. In light of the current debate, Geisel’s war-time cartoons offer a hands-on way for students to examine the artist’s controversial works without directly having to access the six books in question. More importantly, the cartoons create an opportunity for reflection on how depictions of people of color in popular culture have changed over the course of our national history and the evolution of what we as a society deem “acceptable.” 

 

When studying the World War II-era cartoons, I ask students to think about how a person of Japanese heritage might have responded to Geisel’s stereotypical renderings of Japanese leaders. Year after year, my students consistently cite Geisel’s depiction of legions of Japanese-Americans lining the Pacific coastline to receive their share of dynamite in “Waiting for the Signal from Home” (February 1942) as problematic: a group of people, the vast majority of which were US citizens who expressed no support of a Japanese invasion of the United States, were portrayed as willing participants in a possible attack on the nation. How, the students ask, could people of Japanese descent counter accusations of sedition and treason in a climate in which the mainstream media depicted them as guilty?

 

In a piece for The Atlantic titled “In Our House Dr. Seuss Was Contraband,” (March 2021) Michael Harriot describes his African-American mother’s disdain for Seuss’s depiction of people of color as the primary reason why his books were not allowed in Harriot’s childhood home in the 1970s. “I assumed most people knew that Seuss, despite the support he expressed for civil rights, was capable of depicting human beings of other races in demeaning ways,” Harriot writes. “Painting Seuss as a victim of rabid ‘wokeness’ is like saying police brutality is a recent epidemic that began when people started uploading cellphone footage.”

 

Harriot’s piece ends with a cautionary note: “The issue matters because the images children see and the words they hear are small but important parts of the person they eventually become.” Recognizing the errors of our national past does not erase or “cancel” them, but instead opens the proverbial door to deeper dialogue and greater understanding. As historians, it is our job to help our students embrace the collective walk through that open door.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.