That’s me folks.
You see me. In my Thing 2 shirt, smiling at the camera. That was five years ago.
Before someone told me that my version of Santa wasn’t real. Before someone told me that the person I’d been celebrating was someone I should be reviling. That the grandfatherly old man with the quirky illustrations and nonsense word filled books had actually participated in racist imagery.
I didn’t know then what I know now. Five years is a long time. Long enough for me to now be leading the charge on my social media for NOT celebrating the author during Read Across America week.
It’s actually the reason I’m writing today. I honestly believe that some of his ardent supporters will in the future be much more like me. And with that hope, I share a few reflections for those who are struggling with what they know about Seuss the man vs. his work. I also want to talk to those who have already made a decision to NOT participate in sharing Seuss with their students and are frustrated by teachers who kindness police them for speaking out.
Let me start out by saying this.
If you are not ready to have a real discussion about Seuss’ legacy, I can not help you get ready.
It is your job as an educator to wrestle with this dilemma and come out on the other side of it a more knowledgeable teacher. All I can do is plant some seeds and pray that in time they will grow into a stronger teacher and leader. The fact of the matter is, we can not divorce what we know about his legacy from the illusion that we’ve been taught. It is the work that you MUST do to come to clarity. And to be clear, clarity may not include never reading his work to students again. Clarity is knowing who he was as an author and man, and letting that guide how you unpack him with students. We still teach terrible people in history. Seuss is no worse, but the paradigm from which we teach him is currently wrong.
As teachers, one of our roles is to critically analyze practice and pedagogy.
So, let me ask you, who benefits from the ‘white-washing’ of Seuss? Who benefits from not ALSO sharing his racist past?
We can’t deny that these images exist. We can not pretend that they were not racist.
But it is the denial that is problematic. The refusal to see that that is ALSO a part of his legacy.
So, to those of you who are angry with how often you feel silenced by ‘Seuss-lovers’, let me offer this.
There are stages of grief. One of them is denial.
When I first heard about the racist imagery, I remember not wanting to look at it at all. Because I couldn’t believe that they were his. Seriously.
When teachers are confronted with these images and conversations on social media, the result is much the same.
There are other teachers who are in the stage of anger.
They rebut every argument about Seuss with…but the stories are so good. Did you know that there is evidence that later in life he made other illustrations that showed he had a change of heart?
So, my question is why can’t Seuss be both? Why can’t he be a brilliant author, who was also a racist?
The reason is that it does not jive with the illusion that we have about him.
If we accept that he held racist beliefs, we can not sit in front of a room full of black and brown children and read about him as if he were untainted.
As a Christian, I see this type of thing play out all the time.
When we study the life of David, for example, do we marinate in the idea that David was a terrible parent and husband? No, we talk about his triumphs and that he was a man after God’s own heart. We forget that some of our most revered Biblical figures were also men that did horrible things in the name of hubris.
Here’s what I want you to go forward and consider.
Seuss did racist things.
Seuss has some great books.
Seuss can be studied when we as teachers understand who he was as a man and let that color the WAY in which he is taught.
He as a man does not need to be celebrated. He does not need a WEEK.
We can look at his books critically with young students. We don’t need to emphasize his authorship more than others.
With older students we must allow them to come to a decision about who he was as a man.
Allow them to see the imagery. Allow them to read his work and make their own decisions about who he was in context.
What we can not do any longer is divorce ourselves from the truth of who he was.
So, next year, when your school does Seuss week. Give grace to teachers who still do not know, or are not yet willing to accept truth.
Share with people one on one what you know.
Find literature from diverse authors to share with your kids instead.
Read one text. Just like you’d read any other text.
No big deal. Just a story.
Got bigger kids? Share source text from people of color: specifically Asian-American and Black groups on his work. Share supporters of his work. Also share the racist images from early work and the work from later on. Then have the kids write about how their opinions have deepened on him or shifted. It could be pretty powerful!
So, with these thoughts in mind, what are your next steps in your journey to unpacking the WHOLE reality of Dr. Seuss?