The headlines tell us Dr. Seuss was a racist.
You say, “What? The beloved children’s book writer was a racist?” Yes, he has been dead for 26 years and his ‘racist’ drawings were published before and during WWII in a low circulation newspaper. So he obviously must now be outed for his despicable attitudes. After all, our founding fathers have all been denounced, why not the much praised and awarded author of successful children’s books?
At the beginning of his career, before WWII, Dr. Seuss began drawing propaganda cartoons for a New York daily newspaper, PM, with a circulation of about 150,000. His drawings of Hitler and Mussolini depicted the mass murdering bullies alternatively as ridiculous and menacing.
It is true that Dr. Seuss drew a few cartoons depicting the feared imaginary ‘fifth column’ of Japanese-American saboteurs. However, it was not Dr. Seuss who suspended the constitution to put Japanese-American citizens – men, women and children into internment camps without due process. That was done by the then Democratic administration and led by future Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren.
Just because Dr. Seuss was a Democrat doesn’t mean he was a racist. He condemned the Jim Crow laws, segregation, poll taxes, discriminatory hiring practices and the KKK supported by the Democratic party of the day.
Dr. Seuss also was very critical of outspoken American anti-Semites and isolationists like Fr. Coughlin and Charles Lindberg. In times of complacency in the face of an enemy bent on our destruction (a topic Dr. Seuss also addressed eloquently), it is easy to forget that WWII was a struggle for our survival.
WWII was as close to all-out war anyone wishes to see. Western civilization was attacked from all sides by brutal and ruthless enemies who had no respect for life or liberty.
Propagandists use simplistic humor and the grotesque to dehumanize and portray the enemy as beneath contempt. The de-humanization of the enemy has existed as long as humankind. Have you seen German and Japanese propaganda pictures from the era? Better check your delicate sensibilities before you look. I promise these disgusting images have none of the wit of those produced by Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Seuss lent his support to our war effort by producing propaganda cartoons to boost morale and to paint the enemy in the starkest terms possible.
Hitler (representing the Third Reich and the Nazis) is variously depicted as a giant snake, a dog, an insect, crocodile, octopus, a mermaid, a cherub and other creatures. That ‘Japan’ is depicted similarly hardly makes those drawings racist.
In a cartoon depicting ‘Japan’ as a giant snake consuming a helpless Asian man labeled ‘China,’ who is Dr. Seuss being racist about? It is Japan’s actions Dr. Seuss condemned, not its race.
Lest we forget, Seuss was a cartoonist. If those depicted in his drawings came off as caricatures, it is because the drawings were caricatures. Hitler and Mussolini didn’t come off any better than Hirohito. And that trio were the true racists.
So, roughly eighty years after publication, drawings done by Dr. Seuss are dredged up as proof of his racism. Really? What possible good is intended by making these claims? If they are so hurtful and dangerous, to what purpose are they returned to public view after all this time?
(Certain advertising drawings Dr. Seuss did in the ‘30s are embarrassing and offensive by today’s standards. They were in line with what the media was promoting during the Depression.)
One value of knowing history rather than merely erasing it, is one can track changes in behavior. If you insist his propaganda work is racist – let’s examine his career. The core of Dr. Seuss’s work stands as a testament to the American values of fair play and equality like few other children’s authors. Dr. Seuss’s post-war creative output is remarkable for its optimistic tone and positive, anti-racist messages. He was doing his own work and not as a ‘hired gun’.
Not only is there no evidence Dr. Seuss held onto ‘racist’ attitudes after his propaganda work, at least one of his books takes racism head-on and shows it for what it is. ‘The Sneetches’ positively explodes all the bogus in-crowd / out-crowd superiority scams used by some groups when putting other groups down – from high school cliques to dominant ethnic groups.
The book “Dr. Seuss goes to War” (from which the images leading to the charges of racism are found) states that “Horton Hears a Who”, published in 1954, was the direct result of Dr. Seuss’s post-war trip to Japan. The book is dedicated to a Japanese friend of his.
Horton is the lovable elephant who discovers a whole civilization (of Whos) living on a dust mote. Horton’s compassionate efforts lead to the Who’s isolated world being preserved from destruction. How many know Dr. Seuss’s post-war experience with the Japanese people led to this wonderful story?
Racism is a terrible thing. The charge of racism is too easily made. The motives of those who make that accusation are suspect.
The United States operates on the ideal that all people are created equal. Shared cultural values such as those enshrined in our Constitution are what allow our people and country to thrive. These ideals are what bind us, not ethnic or tribal identity.
One would be hard put to find a true racist able to declare one of Dr. Seuss’s most famous and favorite lines from ‘Horton Hears a Who’: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”