Dr. Seuss and Racism

In 2017, an elementary school librarian in Massachusetts criticized a gift of Dr. Seuss books from then First Lady Melania Trump as being “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.” A school district in Virginia claimed that “Research in recent years has revealed strong racial undertones in many books written/illustrated by Dr. Seuss.” This from a PBS article.

Was, therefore, Dr. Seuss a racist?

NBC published a piece, “Why Dr. Seuss got away with anti-Asian Racism for so Long,” proclaiming that “Dr. Seuss, the pen name for Theodor Seuss Geisel (who died in 1991, at 87), . . . perpetuated harmful Asian stereotypes in a series of political cartoons. From 1941 to 1943, he published more than 400 cartoons for the New York newspaper “PM,” many of which displayed anti-Japanese racism during World War II.”

From a historical point of view, Dr. Seuss, Theodore Giesel, was part of U. S. propaganda against particularly Japan during WWII. But then, after Pearl Harbor, and hearing about death marches and other atrocities, Americans viewed the Japanese as Americans today view terrorists such as the Islamic State and Al Quaeda: as a people who fail the commonly accepted standards for what is just and true. Yes, Dr. Seuss and almost every other American thought ill about the Japanese and sometimes caricatured them in non-too flattering ways.

After the war, Dr. Seuss, through his books, became a champion against hatred, fighting for the moral values that the U.S. stood for after WWII: peace, truth, justice, equality.

In retrospect, I don’t approve of Dr. Seuss’s wartime racial caricatures, but I understand why he drew them during that time in history, just as I understand why artists today might caricature terrorist fighters.

Educators should use Seuss’s example as a teaching moment to inform students that the historical perspective does not give us the right to judge people’s attitudes in the past.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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