Banning Seuss – A WOKE Moment in Young American Readers’ Choices

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California – March 2 could have passed unnoticed as most previous national ‘Read Across America Days’ did – except it did not. Launched in 1998 by the National Education Association (NEA), the day is intended to inspire children to read. The day coincides with the birthdate of Dr. Seuss – a much loved author of children’s books.

A pseudonym of Theodor Seuss Geisel, Seuss was born on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts and died on September 24, 1991 in La Jolla, California. Recognized the world over as a witty-nutty American writer and illustrator of immensely popular children’s books, he and his books were noted for their playful rhymes, nonsensical words, and a ‘phantasmic world’ inhabited by imagined fantastic creatures. Seuss and his books seemed a natural fit for a reading promotion campaign directed to children. Hence, for the next more than two decades, NEA partnered with Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

But then a new Dawn arose in American culture when under the ideologically threatening cancelling-out power of WOKE, Seuss’ books became suspect. On March 2, young readers along with their parents, grandparents, teachers, caregivers, book sellers and others woke up to an astonishing announcement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises that it would stop printing six books because of racist and insensitive imagery.

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr. Seuss Enterprises told The Associated Press in a statement that coincided with the author and illustrator’s birthday. “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”

Inclusivity in children’s literature and confronting and weeding out racist undertones is the inspiration behind this self-abnegation by the Seuss Enterprise. In view of its own progressive move to focus on diverse children’s books, NEA was only too glad to bid farewell to Seuss. “It’s not about reading or not reading certain books, it’s about raising awareness around the social and systemic bias that such books promote,” noted NEA spokesperson. “Dr. Seuss and whiteness is a reflection of the overwhelming silence in literacy regarding matters of race, especially with both young people and white people.”

Anchored in Cultural cleansing, White-washing (of whites), Black supremacy, and Ethnic Minority Equity (some see it as reverse racism), the Biden administration is fully behind this sifting of thoughtful reading for tender age children. In his Read Across America Day presidential proclamation, Seuss’s name accordingly was left out by Biden, unlike what both Trump and Obama had not done. In fact, First Ladies Michelle and Melania both chose to read Seuss books to young readers during their respective tenures at the White House – a rare and remarkable example of cross-party affinity!

The objectionable elements of Seuss books were brought to light in a 2019 study. Undertaken jointly by the Conscious Kid’s Library and the University of California-San Diego, it examined Seuss books and found that of the 2,240 human characters, barely 2 percent – were of color. Worse, all of the colored were male, and were cast in subservient, exoticized, or dehumanized roles. Comical stereotypes of black (including tan and yellow races) were noticeable. That female characters were totally absent was especially startling to the researchers.

The study found quick acceptance. A School District in Virginia, for instance, with its focus on “equity and culturally responsive instruction” and “in view of the study” released guidance to schools to not connect Read Across America Day exclusively with Dr. Seuss’ birthday. His books, however, as the District hastened to clarify, after it encountered some criticism from parents and Seuss fans, are not banned and continue to be available to readers in the district’s libraries.

The discontinued books 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!”, and “The Cat’s Quizzer.”

The titles seem innocuous and imaginative, but hardly incendiary. Taking just one (The Zoo Book) of the six as an example, one finds that it deals with a child who discovers that the animals in the zoo he visits are not exotic enough, and feels if he were to run the zoo, he would free all those animals and replace them with new, more exotic ones with weird names such as Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill, a lion with ten feet, and the world’s biggest bird with an odd eating style.

A ‘judging’ hypersensitive eye could find superior smugness and racism in the child for whom current animal forms are simply not good enough. Treating ‘other’ species as exotic and display-worthy could indicate exploitative colonialism. That the animals were captured and brought from remote and exotic habitats could likewise be viewed by trouble-makers as suggestive of enslavement.

On the other hand, one could treat the contents for what they are – plainly comical and weird. Hardly the destructive racist literature that young minds are better off never seeing, let alone reading.

While books often go out of print without much ado and die of their own accord, gently fading into oblivion, the Seuss books evoked a different response. News of their discontinuation, reminiscent of a ‘cease and desist’ order, evoked immediate hike in the demand for them making them top sellers on Amazon and eBay. Collectors stepped in offering hundreds, even thousands for the set of six! Afraid of coming under fire from Cancel-culture forces with possibly deleterious impact on its business, eBay is seeking to remove the listings of the said books from its site. Even if eBay succeeds in doing so, the books can still be bought or sold at Amazon and Mercari. So the gold rush continues.

Whether prompted by ‘cancel-culture’ or self-imposed, the suspension of the six books is not likely to cause any damage to the astronomical earnings the Seuss publications net. According to industry sources, the rhyming writer’s estate raked in $33 million in 2020 thanks to on-screen adaptations like “Green Eggs and Ham” for Netflix, and a three-movie Warner Bros. deal featuring characters from “The Cat in the Hat” and the world of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

But as readers and teachers of readers, or even as parents and grandparents, we should feel compelled to question the wisdom and fairness in retroactively indicting some for perceived crimes of racism. Seuss wrote in different times when sensibilities and sensitivities were different. The guardians of his legacy have deferred to the power of the pervasive cancel culture. While some have hailed (and can hail) it as a wise gesture and a thoughtful step to remove racist imagery, others perceive it as yet another alarming warming of the growing power of unilateral censorship. Guided (or misguided) by WOKE, these self-appointed arrogant censors have become patrons of some and eliminators of other voices based entirely on their ability to smother those with which they disagree. The more this monolithic power of thought control is ceded, the less worthy becomes America’s claim to being a thriving democracy and the Protector of Free speech and First Amendment.

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Neera Kuckreja Sohoni has a Ph.D. in economics and is a published author.

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