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Reminiscing about the Dr. Seuss books we loved as children is usually a happy time for adults. We might remember first learning about equality in Horton Hears a Who! or getting starry-eyed about our futures reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (of course, for some of us there’s also a bit of residual terror about that green-food-obsessed apparition in Green Eggs and Ham).
But Philip Nel, a scholar and professor of children's literature whose specialties include Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter, is pushing readers to grapple with the political and social implications of the stories that inspire such warm, fuzzy memories. In his new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, Nel argues that, yes, the Cat in the Hat was black—or, more precisely, that Seuss’s depiction of the character was based on racial stereotypes and inspired by traditions of blackface minstrel entertainment—and that dozens more children’s books of decades past are brimming with insidious, racist themes.
It's okay to think fondly of a beautiful story, but you need to also think about the way in which that beautiful story may also be racist.
We can talk about what is masterful about it or what is artistic about it, but we also need to talk about some of the things in the book which are not, and if presented uncritically are simply transmitting these ideas to a new generation. I think adults need to recognize that their fondness for a book or a movie is not a defense of that. I think you would actually have a richer and more profound relationship with a work if you do think about it critically, and if we do acknowledge those mixed feelings.