Dr. Seuss and Hiding From the Past

(CNN)Six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” the business that preserves the author’s legacy said.

The titles are:
“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”
“If I Ran the Zoo”
“McElligot’s Pool”
“On Beyond Zebra!”
“Scrambled Eggs Super!”
“The Cat’s Quizzer”

The predictable backlash against this decision has ignited, and the fact that this announcement was made so overtly, and on the author’s birthday no less, points to that being the desired result. Because publishing is a business, and even “bad” publicity is good for business. Because humans are predictable creatures, and the defenders of Dr. Seuss will all rush out to buy the books before they are no longer available.

Which was the real goal.

There is no question that there is questionable material in some of these books. There is questionable material in Twain. There is questionable material in Hemingway. There is questionable material in Shakespeare. There is a reason schools across the United States have slowly started to replace these works from the “literary canon” with other authors. Because as important as these authors were IN THEIR TIME, they no longer represent modern times.

The decision to stop publishing these six books had nothing to do with “supporting the community” or “cancel culture” or “diversity.” It was a business decision driven by the fact that these specific titles have low sales compared to others (because they are not used as much anymore as teaching tools), and, like any publisher faced with titles that don’t sell, they are being removed from the catalog. Publishers cease publication of low-performing titles all the time.

The purpose of this announcement was performative. It was designed specifically to draw attention, raise the ire of those easily incited, and gain publicity while pretending to be supportive of diversity and opposing racism.

This decision does nothing to oppose racism.

What it does is allow the white people who made the decision to pretend they are somehow cleansed of the taint of their ancestors. That by ceasing publication of these titles, they can now claim racism doesn’t “exist” because it is no longer visible…to them. But the problem is that the institutional racism, the deep-baked cultural racism, that allowed these titles to be published with all that problematic content to begin with still exists. This decision does nothing to address the root causes of how this imagery became acceptable in the first place, nor does it do anything to address the fact that, in 2021, so many people still don’t see the imagery as problematic.

I agree with school systems that no longer use these books to teach, because in 2021 there are BETTER titles available that better address the world that 2021 children live in now. Continued reliance on books written thirty, fifty, five-hundred years ago to educate modern children doesn’t help society move forward.

That doesn’t mean; however, we should stop examining these books. But instead of treating them as the “literary canon” needed to be considered “educated,” they should be examined in their historic context. We need to start teaching these titles in the context of their time so that people can understand the realities of history. My great concern with these performative acts of erasure is not that we are “cancelling” an author, but rather that we are hiding from the past. The book, film, or cartoon becomes a rallying point for white supremacists who use it as evidence their “way of life” is under attack while forcing people of color to “defend” why these images or stories were hurtful.

If the publisher truly wanted to address the problematic imagery in the books, there was a much better solution that a huge PR campaign designed to instigate. How wonderful would it be to invite minority authors and illustrators to reimagine these titles and publish a new line of children’s books that retain the message of Dr. Seuss but reimagine it for a new generation? Instead of clinging to the imagery of a bygone era, why not allow those messages to be revisited through the eyes of modern creators? Then, instead of a performative act of false allyship, we could see a truly transformative act of inclusion.