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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Is The Cat in the Hat racist? 

Is The Cat in the Hat Racist? asks Stephen Sawchuk in Education Week.

In honor of Read Across America Day, which is celebrated on the birthday of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Melania Trump sent 10 Dr. Seuss books to a distinguished school in each state.

School librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro dressed up as the Cat in the Hat two years ago, but now says his books are cliched and racist.

Liz Phipps Soeiro, the librarian at a Cambridge, Mass. school, rejected the gift, calling the choice of Dr. Seuss books a “cliche” and complaining of “racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”

You didn’t hear much about Seuss as racist when Barack Obama praised Dr. Seuss in his Read Across America Day proclamation in 2016.

Dr. Seuss instilled “universal values we all hold dear,” said Obama. “He made children see that reading is fun, and in the process, he emphasized respect for all; pushed us to accept ourselves for who we are; challenged preconceived notions and encouraged trying new things; and by example, taught us that we are limited by nothing but the range of our aspirations and the vibrancy of our imaginations.”

Soeiro herself dressed up in Seuss costume two years ago.

“Some of the most classic and beloved titles, from The Wizard of Oz on down, draw on racist tropes and images,” writes Sawchuk.

The Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, at least in its original version, were depicted as African pygmies who were happy to be working for cocoa beans at said chocolate factory. The eponymous Cat in the Hat, a new scholarly book argues, draws from the antics and costumes of minstrel shows.

As a political cartoonist, Geisel opposed Jim Crow laws, but also drew cartoons depicting Japanese-Americans as disloyal during World War II, writes Sawchuk.

Some of his early books suffer from similar caricatures. If I Ran the Zoo contains stereotypical images of Africans and at one point references “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.” (The book was not in the collection provided by Mrs. Trump.) It can be hard to square such depictions with some of Seuss’ other tales, which were often liberal on sociopolitical subjects. The Sneeches argues against prejudice based on physical characteristics; The Lorax is an unsubtle environmental lament; and The Butter Battle Book allegorizes the nuclear arms race.

The Cat In the Hat was based on a black woman, according to Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University, who wrote Was The Cat In the Hat Black?

I was five and just learning to read when The Cat in the Hat was published. I remember how excited my parents were by the book. I thought it was about a large talking cat and some rather weak-willed children. The cat was not a black cat — or a white cat. It wasn’t really a cat either. It was The Cat in the Hat.

Perhaps I have Asian-American readers who can comment on whether they’re disturbed by the stereotypical Orientals in conical hats in If I Ran the Zoo. Would you read the book to your kids? African-American readers, do you read Babar with its African cannibals to your kids?

Michelle Obama reads Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Things You Can Do in the White House in January 2015. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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