Filling in Gaps in the Historical Record: Accuracy, Authenticity, and Closure in Ann Rinaldi’s Wolf by the Ears

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-06-08 00:51Z by Steven

Filling in Gaps in the Historical Record: Accuracy, Authenticity, and Closure in Ann Rinaldi’s Wolf by the Ears

Children’s Literature
Volume 44, 2016
pages 21-60
DOI: 10.1353/chl.2016.0018

Brian Dillon, Professor of English
Montana State University-Billings

Ann Rinaldi, Wolf by the Ears, (New York: Scholastic, 1993).

This novel, narrated by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ daughter, includes four historical inaccuracies: they contribute to a pitiful view of the slave-owning president. Determining authenticity requires a more subjective interpretive response: the depiction of Harriet Hemings’ life at Monticello and her decision to leave and pass for white does achieve a convincing degree of authenticity.

Read or purchase the review here.

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-06-04 18:53Z by Steven

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination

Children’s Literature
Volume 42, 2014
pages 71-98
DOI: 10.1353/chl.2014.0019

Philip Nel, Distinguished Professor of English
Kansas State University

In 1955, Dr. Seuss and William Spaulding—director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division—stepped into the publisher’s elevator at 2 Park Street in Boston. As Seuss’s biographers tell us, the elevator operator was an elegant, petite woman who wore white gloves and a secret smile (Morgan and Morgan 154). They don’t mention that she was Annie Williams, nor do they say that she was African American (Silvey). Seuss was on that elevator because Spaulding thought he could solve the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis by writing a better reading primer. When Seuss sketched this book’s feline protagonist, he gave him Mrs. Williams’s white gloves, her sly smile, and her color. However, she is but one African American influence on Seuss’s most famous character. One source for that red bow tie is Krazy Kat, the black, ambiguously gendered creation of biracial cartoonist George Herriman (Cohen 325). Seuss, who admired what he called “the beautifully insane sanities” of Krazy Kat (qtd. in Nel, Dr. Seuss 70), also draws upon the traditions of minstrelsy—an influence that emerges first in a minstrel show he wrote for his high school. The Cat in the Hat is racially complicated, inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans. The Cat’s influences help us to track the evolution of the African American cultural imaginary in Seuss’s work, but also, more importantly, to exemplify how children’s literature conceals its own racialized origins. Considering the Cat’s racial complexity both serves as an act of desegregation, acknowledging the “mixed bloodlines” (to borrow Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s phrase) of canonical children’s literature, and highlights how during the 1950s—a turning point for African Americans in children’s literature—picture books were a site where race, representation, and power were actively being contested.

Decades before the birth of his Cat in the Hat, racial caricature was an accepted part of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s childhood. D. W. Griffith’s acclaimed Birth of a Nation (1915), released the month Geisel turned eleven, offered a popular and racist depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length “talking picture,” starred Al Jolson in blackface. One of Geisel’s favorite childhood books, Peter Newell’s The Hole Book (1908), follows a bullet’s comically disruptive journey through its pages, including one where a black mammy points to the hole in the watermelon, and addresses, in dialect, a group of wide-eyed black children: “‘Who plugged dat melon?’ mammy cried, / As through the door she came. / ‘I’d spank de chile dat done dat trick / Ef I could learn his name’” (fig. 1). Seuss remembered this book so well that sixty years after reading it, he could still quote its opening verse by heart (Nel, Dr. Seuss 18). If, as Tony Watkins has argued, “books tells stories that contribute to children’s unconscious sense of the ‘homeland’” (193), then these stories may have embedded racist caricature in Geisel’s unconscious, as an ordinary part of his visual imagination…

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