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…

Tags: , , , ,

Obamafiction for Children: Imagining the Forty-Fourth U.S. President

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2010-12-06 19:49Z by Steven

Obamafiction for Children: Imagining the Forty-Fourth U.S. President

Children’s Literature Association Quarterly
Volume 35, Number 4
(Winter 2010)
E-ISSN: 1553-1201 Print ISSN: 0885-0429
pages 334-356

Philip Nel, Professor of English
Kansas State University

In a column published five days after the 2008 election, journalist Jason Whitlock said of the president-elect’s life: “His is a tale that should be read aloud at bedtime in every American neighborhood.” It was already being read aloud in some neighborhoods. Even before Senator Obama had won the election, there were twelve juvenile titles about his life: two picture books, nine chapter books, and one comic book. From the election to the end of his first year in office, another forty-seven books were published: thirty-six more chapter books, seven more picture books, two comic books, one book of poetry, and one board book. And that doesn’t include the Obama Paper Dolls book, coloring and activity books, the titles about Bo the dog, nor the many books about Michelle, Sasha, and Malia.

To have this many children’s books about a candidate—or about a president so soon in his term of office—is unusual. During the campaign, Republican presidential candidate John McCain had seven titles to Obama’s twelve: five chapter books, one comic book, and one picture book (My Dad, John McCain, written by his daughter Meghan McCain). During George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, there were two juvenile titles about him. By the end of the first year of his presidency, add another four. By the end of his eight-year presidency, Bush inspired twenty-nine fewer books than Obama did in his first year—thirty titles in all, and that includes one anti-Bush satire, Dan Piraro’s The Three Little Pigs Buy the White House (2004). The marked difference in tone between the Bush book titles and the Obama book titles suggest that publishers and authors see the forty-fourth president quite differently from the forty-third…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: ,