My 4-year-old son recently received some books a family member had sent as a Thanksgiving present. Yes, recently — but this is not a story about the U.S. Postal Service. It is, instead, about the way in which stated concerns about “cancel culture” can serve as Spackle for frustrations over a changing world.
One of the books he was sent was Dr. Seuss's “If I Ran the Zoo,” a book I had as a kid and that I remembered fondly. In it, a young boy imagines what he'd do with the local zoo were he in charge. It's Seuss, so the boy's conjurings are wild, weird creatures whose names rhyme with their points of origin.
I sat down to read it with Thomas and rambled along in rhythm. Then I turned the page to the “African island of Yerka” on which lived the Tufted Mazurka. In Seuss’s drawing, the bird-thing is perched on a pole being held by two caricatures of African men that are so obviously and immediately racist that it was almost breathtaking. It would be like watching an interview with Tom Hanks in which he suddenly started casually dropping racial slurs, a grotesque act accentuated by astonishment at the source. This was Dr. Seuss, the benchmark for authors of children’s books! And here are the racist caricatures he drew.
“If I Ran the Zoo” is one of the six Seuss books that will soon be out of publication, a decision made by Seuss’s estate given its obviously racist imagery. And this being March 2021, one response was obvious and immediate: Wow, they’re canceling Dr. Seuss!
No one is “canceling” Dr. Seuss, a phrasing by now so detached from reality that it doesn’t even make any sense. The author, himself, is dead for one thing, which is about as canceled as a person can get. The vast, vast majority of his books, the ones without racist images or references, will still be sold. If Dr. Seuss’s profile wanes a bit as a result of the attention being paid to his drawings — the only form of “canceling” at play here — to whom is harm being done?
The answer, of course, is people who perceive criticism of the casual racism of the past as criticism of their own behavior or as a reminder of how the world around them is changing. It’s not that some Dr. Seuss books are being taken out of rotation. It’s that Seuss is a benchmark for a particular sort of American upbringing. Calling out Seuss’s — infrequent! — racist imagery is therefore an attack on that view of American identity.