Nel ’84 a Sought-After Expert on Dr. Seuss

When Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which oversees the 20th-century children’s author’s estate, announced in early March that it had decided to discontinue publication and licensing of six books by Theodor Seuss Geisel because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” news organizations around the country turned to Shore alumnus Philip Nel ’84 for insight on Seuss’s work. A scholar of children’s literature at Kansas State University, Nel is the author of Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, and has written, “Children’s literature conceals its own racialized origins.”

In an interview with Slate about the six books that were discontinued, Nel said the works contained racist caricatures of people of African, Asian, and Arab descent. For example, in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937, readers would have found a page that read, “I’ve seen a Chinaman who eats with sticks.” “The man was colored yellow and had a pigtail, wearing one of those triangular hats,” Nel explained. “It’s a trope in Seuss books more generally to treat ethnic and ‘foreign’ others as comic, even if he doesn’t mean it in an aggressively malicious way. He’s not thinking about how making an entire group of people the subject of a joke has that effect.”

Nel went on to underscore that not all of Seuss’s work should be dismissed.

“I think what is surprising to people is that this was a guy who throughout his work tried to do anti-racist stuff. Think of Horton Hears a Who—one reviewer who read the book when it was published in 1954 described it as an argument for the protection of minorities and their rights. The Sneetches and Other Stories was inspired by opposition to anti-Semitism. Some people look at that and think, ‘We just must be wrong about Seuss.’ That’s because they see racism as an either/or—like, you’re on Team Racism or you’re not. But you can do anti-racist work and also reproduce racist ideas in your work. And Seuss wasn’t aware that his visual imagination was so steeped in the cultures of American racism. He was doing in some of his books what he was trying to oppose in others.”

In an interview with CBS Evening News, Nel said, “I think [Seuss] is like a lot of white people… and isn’t fully aware of how racism shaped his own imagination. The fact that he’s trying to be anti-racist [in other works] and is racist at the same time is unusual.”

And in Reuters’ coverage of the six discontinued books, Nel was quoted as likening the decision to stop publication to the recall of an outdated, dangerous product. “In the 1950s, cars did not have seat belts. Now, we recognize that as dangerous—so, cars have seat belts. In the 1950s, lots of books recycled racist caricature. Now, Random House [Seuss’s publisher] is recognizing this as dangerous.”
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    • Philip Nel appeared on CBS Evening News

    • Two of the discontinued books

    • Dr. Seuss at his desk