Dr. Seuss Museum Should Honor The Fact That He Outgrew His Racist Past

Oct 11, 2017

Of all the images of this man's work, do we really need to show this one? Yes.

All children's book creators worth their salt know the history of Dr. Seuss. We know that his early career was filled with racist propaganda. 

He drew horrible stereotypes against Jews, African-Americans -- you name it.

"Waiting for the signal from home," a 1942 cartoon signed by Dr. Seuss and published by PM Magazine.
Credit Dr. Seuss Collection / U.C. San Diego Library

One of his more egregious cartoons depicts Japanese Americans lining up to receive bombs. He drew that in 1942, when anti-Asian paranoia was at full tilt.

He was a product of his time.

Time passed, however, and Seuss began to regret his images.

It’s widely accepted that his book, "Horton Hears a Who!" was an apology for his earlier racist art.

He went on to write many books with themes of inclusion and tolerance.

Dr. Seuss realized the harm his work could do, and he did better. That is what made him a good man and great artist.

The controversial image being displayed at the Seuss museum is from his first book, printed in 1937.   

An earlier version of "And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street" had a different version of the character at lower left than the book does today.
Credit MassLive.com
A post-1978 version of the Dr. Seuss book "And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street," in front of a controversial portion of a mural in the Seuss museum in Springfield, Mass.
Credit Don Treeger / The Republican

It includes an image of "The Chinaman," which was originally depicted with bright yellow skin and with a long pigtail.

In 1978, Seuss acknowledged that the image should be changed. The reconfigured character is now white and without a pigtail.

But in 2017, we’ve come even further. Even with Seuss’s adaptations, many people (myself included) wince at the updated caricature with its squinty eyes. With so few Asians being represented in children’s literature, it’s painful that one of the few images we do see is a cartoon stereotype.

It begs the question, of all the images of this man's work, do we really need to show this one?

In a Seuss museum, the answer is yes.

But only if it's displayed with an explanation of Seuss’s journey away from racism. It's important that viewers -- especially children -- know Dr. Seuss as he really was: a person affected by his time, but able to grow beyond it. Seuss, himself, deserves that explanation. 

Ted Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, in 1957.
Credit Al Ravenna

I wasn’t asked to participate in the museum's event, but I can't fathom trying to read my books with this image behind me as it stands now, without context.

Yet, I proudly display his award sticker on one of my books. That's because I honor Dr. Seuss as a man who outgrew his racism and created some of the best works of children's literature.

But I won’t honor one of his offensive drawings unless it's clearly identified as part of his regrettable past.

The Seuss museum in Springfield, Massachusetts has acknowledged a change is needed as pressure has mounted for it to deal with the author's mixed record on issues of race and prejudice. 

Grace Lin has written and illustrated more than a dozen children’s books, including the National Book Award finalist, “When the Sea Turned to Silver.” She lives in Florence, Massachusetts. She will be speaking about diversity in children's books at the Forbes Library in Northampton on November 1.