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March 25, 2021

How to learn to agree to disagree with the help of Dr. Seuss and The GayBCs


Ideas come from everywhere and can occur in an instant. Occasionally an idea comes to me through the structure of my inbox: two emails from two sources arriving a minute apart, one beside the other. In touching, they complete a circuit, but it is their contents that light the bulb. Today’s bulb sheds light on the question of difficult histories and what to do with them. It comes at a time when the discipline of History is experiencing record-low enrollment in North American colleges and universities—it is currently the “sick man” of the humanities.

Not long ago I received an email from a critical-thinking friend and father lamenting the retirement of six problematic Dr. Seuss books. Immediately after that arrived an email from another friend, a self-professed social conservative and mother protesting a YouTube video of a four-year-old white boy reading aloud from a picture book called The GayBCs (2019). (Ah, to have friends with different perspectives!) Both emails contained links to their respective news stories, so of course I clicked on them.

The first led me to a BBC News piece on the offending Dr. Seuss books, citing a statement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises: “These books,” writes DSE, “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Two of the books in question are And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) and If I Ran the Zoo (1950). In the former, “a character described as Chinese has two lines for eyes, carries chopsticks and a bowl of rice, and wears traditional Japanese-style shoes,” while the latter “depicts two men from Africa as shirtless, shoeless and wearing grass skirts as they carry an exotic animal.”

For my friend upset with The GayBCs, it is not so much the book that bothers her (she admitted to not having seen it) but the boy’s eager, even ecstatic, responses to a woman (his mother?) who asks, “What does ‘H’ stand for?” (“Hope!” the boy replies), then “I” (“Intersex!”), then “J” (“Joy!”), etc. Later, I asked my friend exactly what offended her about the video. She looked at me in disgust. “All of it! The child is saying words he doesn’t understand.”

Having seen an online display of the book, I told her that each page contains a benign illustration of its letter and a short text (“’I’ is for INTERSEX. Some are born with the parts of both a boy and a girl. Bodies are works of art”), which, in the spirit of bedtime reading, would be shared and discussed with the child.

But my friend was having none of it. “It’s spectacle!” she said. “The kid is a circus act. The intent is not to foster but to inflame.”

Though my friend and I agree to disagree on most topics, she has a point: the child’s performance indeed seems geared toward external reward than indicative of the self-reflection we associate with consideration of abstract concepts. After all, who among us has not seen a parent promote a child to similar effect? (My father certainly did it to my six-year-old self when, after dinner parties, I was instructed to lend my boy soprano to Mary Hopkin’s hit song “Those Were the Days.”) It is unnerving to see a child on display like this; it inspires both awe and horror, magnified no less by the impresario’s good-natured cruelty. Does the boy know his performance has been made public? Do his parents care if he is one day uncomfortable with it, or that it was posted without his consent, regardless of his sexuality or how he feels about it? The video we need to see is of the boy and his parents exploring this book together.

This togetherness—the dialogue between well-meaning parent and child—is what is lacking in the recent discussion of Dr. Seuss books. Yes, the books are faulty, as evidenced by their racist stereotypes and, beginning in the late 1950s, the abandonment of non-Anglo-European characters for dogs and cats and invented creatures whose names derive more from their rhyming potential than anything provided by Linnaeus.

But let’s consider the intention of Mulberry and Zoo: both encourage the imagination, drawing on regions and individuals outside of North America (China, Russia, Africa, India), summoning creatures unknown to monocultural Main Streets, museums, and zoos. If a parent should discover something racist in these books, they should (like the Punk Rock Preschool YouTube reading of Zoo, where the offending line “wear their eyes at a slant” is replaced with “such very cool pants”) revise it. And if the wise child should ask why a line read aloud differs from how it is written, the parent can explain how the book is wrong and why it is right to improve it, perhaps with a different improvement each time. As for racist images, these can, with pen and eraser, be improved upon, too.

In saying this, I am not making a case for reprinting these books as they first appeared (they should be revised, with the participation of the cultural groups to which they refer). Rather, I advocate for their recognition as historic artifacts—examples of an ignorant (a charitable interpretation) or perhaps a simply racist past.

A similar argument is made regarding the many unsettling images from, for instance, World War II or the postwar US South by those whose people suffered the injustices depicted in them: these images must remain accessible to prevent similar injustices from ever happening again. Indeed, many of these images are so difficult to discuss, let alone look at or mention by name, that to do so requires a text much longer than this one, and an attention span to match it. This, too, is a problem of history. Why this is, I have my thoughts. But so far, no ideas.

Truman Lee Rich is a retired librarian and marathon runner based in Athens, Georgia.

Cover photo courtesy of: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images


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