Dr. Philip Nel on the Legacy of Dr. Seuss

Historians in the News
tags: racism, books, Dr. Seuss, literature, childrens literature, Cancel Culture

ast week, you may have heard "Dr. Seuss is canceled," after the author's estate announced it would stop selling six children's books that contain racial and ethnic stereotypes. Our Vimal Patel interviewed Philip Nel, who studies race in children's books and directs the children’s literature program at Kansas State University, about how Theodore Seuss Geisel was "a genius and a racist" at once.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

'A Genius and a Racist'

Philip Nel’s mom gave him a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go in 1990, when he turned 21, with a note that read, “For Phil, I know you’re going places.”

One of those places would be Kansas State University, where he directs the children’s literature program and wrote the 2017 book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? In the book, Nel argues that the lanky and mischievous feline was inspired by blackface minstrelsy.

The distinguished professor’s phone rang off the hook last week, after Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Conservative media called the move the latest example of "cancel culture" run amok; Nel said it highlights the need for diverse children's books.

Nel spoke with The Chronicle about his research, diversity in children’s books, and Dr. Seuss’s complicated legacy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you summarize the evidence for your argument that The Cat in the Hat was inspired by blackface minstrelsy? 
I ask, “was the cat black?” as a way to invite us to think, “What would it mean if the Cat in the Hat was influenced by blackface minstrelsy?” He's a somewhat ambiguous figure. He's not like the African characters from the island of Yerka in If I Ran the Zoo [one of the six canned titles]. The Cat is inspired by blackface minstrelsy, like much of 20th-century American popular culture. You can look at Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, the Scarecrow [from The Wizard of Oz]. The movements, the white gloves, the ridiculous neckwear.

Blackface minstrelsy was something that Seuss knew. He wrote and performed in a blackface-minstrel show called Chicopee Surprised when he was a high-school student in Springfield, Mass., and he performed in blackface. You can see evidence of blackface caricature in his cartoons from the '20s and '30s. It influenced his imagination. When you put those cartoons side by side with the Cat, you can see it. Not only the visual similarities, but the function they serve in the story.

Blackface minstrel characters are many things, but one thing is pretenders to a kind of status that they lack. That is what the Cat is. It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how, he says. And he doesn't know how. And that's why he's funny — and dangerous. He's also influenced by Krazy Kat, the creation of an African American cartoonist named George Herriman, and by an African American elevator operator named Annie Williams. The Cat is an example of how racist ideas continue to lurk in the culture in ways that we're not aware of, in ways that we don't see. We absorb it, and it influences us in ways that we're not always conscious of.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education