Why Do We Continue to Celebrate Seuss on Read Across America Day?
Over inclusivity and societal progress, over interrogating past practices and entrenched beliefs, over examining the ways systems benefit some at the exclusion of others, people seek nostalgia and familiarity.
Here’s a perfect example: Type Read Across America 2021 in your browser’s search engine, and you’ll find wonderful resources with diverse book collections for children to read and enjoy on March 2, Read Across America Day. What you might not see immediately are the heated complaints on social media, questioning the need to forgo Seuss books. As you probably know, Theodor Seuss Geisel disseminated racist ads from 1920 through 1940 and that the few times characters of color are present in his books they have been shown in stereotypical, racist ways.
The pro-Seuss commentaries are wide-ranging and include the following: that those sharing culturally relevant lists are profit-seeking; that since Seuss books have always been read and loved, they need to continue to be read and loved; and — the most mind boggling one — that Dr. Seuss was a product of his time. (Read: He and his books should get a free pass.)
Let me address those three points below:
The first claim above is an unfair, ad hominem attack because educators who create lists of diverse collections do so generously, knowing there is a dearth of books specifically written by and for BIPOC. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of Ohio State University, calls on educators to diversify their classroom libraries. “We need books in which children can find themselves,” she says. (See this short interview of Dr. Sims Bishop stating the need for books that are “mirrors and windows” for our students.)
Not only is the second pro-Seuss point above masking nostalgia for former times, but also it’s a circular argument that leads nowhere. And with this logic as our guide, there would never be societal progress since continuing to do something just because it’s the way it has always been done is a roundabout way of circumventing the confrontation of extant racist practices. At the same time, disrupting this claim is probably the hardest to do because it requires deep interrogation, painful excavation, and sacrifice once we unmask those truths.
Lastly, the excuse that Seuss was a product of his time is basically saying that since people didn’t know better then they couldn’t do better. But we know there have been non-Black antiracists throughout the centuries, such as the Mennonites over three hundred years ago; members of the early Quaker establishment, such as John Woolman; and later Benjamin Lundy, the latter who inspired William Lloyd Garrison — and these are just a few of the more well known early activists. Though Seuss later sketched what he considered antiracist cartoons, the context and body of his work was decidedly racist.
Let me be clear. I’m not advocating censorship. Children need opportunities to learn how to read critically and unpack what is problematic in a text in order to apply that skill when reading the world. Additionally, this can and should be done with our youngest children. (See this article: The Sneetches Are Problematic: Facing The Legacy of Dr. Seuss With Your Students | by Heinemann Publishing.) Yet this week teachers will continue the homage to Seuss in countless classrooms, reading his books and dressing in character. Even if we aren’t educators, we do know or have children or grandchildren, and based on our knowledge of them, we might offer or suggest titles from any number of racially and culturally diverse book collections, such as here, here, or here. In this way, we are widening their range of choice and centering our children by inviting them to decide which titles become elevated to the status of childhood favorite.