Why My “Read Across America Day” Was Different
The Racist History of Dr. Seuss
The 20th Anniversary of the National Education Association’s (NEA) “Read Across America” Day takes place on March 2nd -- Dr. Seuss’s birthday. It is the largest celebration of reading in America, with over 45 million students, parents, teachers, libraries and community centers participating. Dr. Seuss books and activities are central to the annual celebration -- schools have Dr. Seuss-themed festivals, eat “green eggs and ham”, and get dressed up as their “favorite Dr. Seuss character”. The NEA sells Dr. Seuss merchandise through their website, and kids across America will be seen wearing iconic red and white striped hats from the book, The Cat in the Hat.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” has sold over 600 million copies of his books and is a widely celebrated and beloved children’s book author. Most people in America, and even globally -- Dr. Seuss books are translated into 20 languages-- know of his classic titles. What it not as well known, or acknowledged, however, is his work publishing racist and xenophobic political cartoons.
From 1941-43, Seuss was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper, PM, and used this highly-influential platform to create propaganda dehumanizing, stereotyping and even vilifying people of color.
Dr. Seuss repeatedly depicted Africans and African-Americans as monkeys. In fact, his cartoons only depict Black people as monkeys---often times holding spears or surrounded by flies. This cartoon he made for “Judge” Magazine in 1929 was up for auction in 2015 for $20,000 and has Black people up for sale with a sign reading: “Take Home A High-Grade N*gger For Your Wood Pile.”
Seuss’s political propaganda against the Japanese propelled anti-Japanese paranoia at a critical time in American history during World War II. He branded all people of Japanese-descent as anti-American and depicted Japanese and Japanese-Americans as categorically evil.
The exaggerations and sensationalism he used in these cartoons were known as “Yellow Journalism” and preceded the 1942 & 1944-45 U.S. Air Force firebombing of Tokyo, killing 100,000 and leaving over 1 million homeless; the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 300,000 Japanese people from the blast and radiation; and, Executive Order 9066 of 1942, which incarcerated 120,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps across the US. In fact, six days before Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, Dr. Seuss published this cartoon depicting all Japanese-Americans on the west coast as saboteurs:
As a reminder, not one of the 120,000 incarcerated Japanese-Americans were ever found guilty of sabotage or treason. He was also quoted by his biographer, Richard H. Minear, as saying, “If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs.”
Dr. Seuss was very clear that he supported the killing and incarceration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans and influenced the American public with these views. His racism towards Asians even crossed over to his early children’s books. In his first book, And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, he references a “Yellow-faced Chinaman who eats with sticks.”
Arabs were also subject to problematic stereotyping. Arab men are depicted as camel-riding nomads or sultans and women as hyper-sexualized harems.
This was in contrast to the way he depicted Germans. Of German descent himself, Seuss showed sympathy to Germans and focused his critique on German leaders.
Dr. Seuss, who died in 1991, never addressed the damage done by his racist works specifically, nor issued any form of direct or explicit apology. Some suggest that his book “Horton Hears a Who!”, with the message “a person’s a person no matter how small!” is an apologetic “allegory” for his World War II propaganda. This remains conjecture and ultimately, is an attempt to defend Seuss’s racism.
The NEA represents 3 million educators in every state and asserts that “public education is vital to building respect for the worth, dignity, and equality of every individual in our diverse society.” If the NEA is truly committed to building respect for our youth -- all of our youth -- then shift the focus of Read Across America Day away from Dr. Seuss. Do not attempt to justify, rationalize, or sweep the racism he espoused under the rug -- and the very real implications those kind of narratives had (and continue to have) on oppressed groups.
The surge in racism and xenophobia since the election has had a devastating impact on our youth and school cultures. In a survey of over 10,000 educators since the election, 90% reported that their school climate has been negatively impacted. 80% reported heightened anxiety and concern amongst students of color about the impact of the election on their families and over 2,500 said they knew of “fights, threats, assaults and other incidents that could be traced directly to election rhetoric”.
Beyond impacting our student’s ability to engage in school, discrimination and fear affect our student’s entire life trajectories. What message is being sent when they are required to celebrate a man with a well-documented history of reinforcing this same type of hate and division against people of color? What will it mean for their future engagement with reading and books?
We are a nation still entrenched with violent anti-black bias, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and xenophobia. If we are serious about addressing the surge in hate speech and hate crimes in our schools and communities and fostering safe, inclusive spaces, we need to be critical of the content we are introducing and the people we are choosing to celebrate.
There are so many diverse authors and illustrators whose lives and work are dedicated to honoring, reflecting, and empowering the rich diversity of our children, communities, nation and world. Shine the spotlight on new, diverse voices, and unlock the full power and possibilities of reading.
Let’s do better for our kids. Our future depends on it.