Into the Weeds with Dr. Seuss: A Response to “Problem Attic”

I’m amazed at the way Andy Senior has made Syncopated Times into a broad-gauged, literate, and outright enjoyable publication, and I’m a regular admirer of the wit and wisdom of his monthly “Static from My Attic” columns. But I feel that he stepped away from both jazz and his usual expansive vision in the April issue when he moved into the controversy about the decision of the publisher of Dr. Seuss books to discontinue certain titles because the graphics were stereotypical depictions of racial minorities.

I don’t dispute Andy’s points that the images in Seuss books didn’t bias him against any ethnic group, and at age 59 he doesn’t feel guilty for having loved the books as a child. As far as that goes, our experiences are similar. I’m 86 years old. Rewind to my own childhood in New Orleans. My generation was bombarded by far more pervasive and uglier racist images than those of later years. Asian caricatures in the Seuss books and comic strips. Bug-eyed black porters and shoeshine boys in movies. “Picaninnies” in cartoons and books like “Little Black Sambo.” Depictions of evil, slant-eyed “Japs” during WWII. Society was totally segregated—drinking fountains, schools, buses, the works. And there were lynchings, Japanese internment camps, and much more. But surely you get the picture: the culture was suffused with degrading messages about the ignorance and inferiority of non-whites.

Red Wood Coast

As a child of popular culture, I was a rabid reader of comic books and had a burgeoning interest in becoming a cartoonist. “The Phantom” and “The Spirit,” two of my favorites, had good artwork and fascinating plots. The Phantom was a masked white man literally worshipped as immortal by two African tribes because his ancestor quelled a war between them. “The Spirit” was a cryptic detective who lived in a graveyard. His sidekick (an interesting metaphor is buried in that term) being “Ebony White,” a black youth with bulging eyes and mammoth lips.

But my naive pre-pubescent contact with racist social messages didn’t tempt me to join the Klan. My parents were models of love and compassion for the poor and marginalized in American society. My hometown heroes included Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and Bunk Johnson. I didn’t sort it out reflectively at the time, but my parents’ values and my love for jazz were by far the overriding influences. So I don’t feel guilty about enjoying Phantom and Spirit comics and playing war games where we killed “dirty Japs.” But I’m deeply saddened and embarrassed by it.

The issue isn’t whether white folks like me were conditioned to racial prejudice by the stereotypes we were exposed to. We aren’t the victims of racist imagery from the past or the forms that are still blatantly or subtly expressed in daily life. People of color have the true legitimate stake in the matter. When they say that it’s damaging and hurtful to their children and them to see biases of the past perpetuated, in addition to existing personal and institutionalized discrimination, that’s the bottom line for the discussion.

Hot Jazz Jubile

The discontinuance of some Seuss books and other limitations that some are calling “censorship” are part of an ethical attempt to bring to light demeaning messages from the past. They continue in society at large. In my view, we should be part of that effort even if we don’t have residual bias.

The Nazzim of Bazzim from Dr. Seuss’ On Beyond Zebra—the purportedly offensive image that led to the book being pulled from the catalogue.
(courtesy Random House)

I take censorship very seriously. For over a decade I was the staff anti-censorship activist for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in Urbana, Illinois. I fielded about 100 cases a year in response to teachers who were in danger of being fired for doing their jobs—teaching good literature that someone considered offensive. We prevailed in most cases with letters to boards of education supporting the book and the teacher.

There are thorny questions here, but it’s our gig to go into the weeds and deal with them. On one hand, can “political correctness” go too far limiting of offensive materials like the Seuss books? On the other, can freedom to learn go too far in allowing students to study works that include sensitive themes such as abortion and premarital sex? The simple answer is that there’s no general answer. It’s a case-by-case process. At NCTE we responded to each problem on its merits. Occasionally, we told teachers that we couldn’t support their choices—if, for example, the work in question clearly wasn’t grade-level appropriate in terms of difficulty or content.

My main plea is that cliches be avoided in fair-minded exchanges of views. “Political correctness” is a broadside label that makes further discussion difficult. So is the “slippery slope” (Well, then, what’s next?) argument, and terms like “woke,” “cancelled,” and “cancellation culture.” In the wings are “erasure,” “micro-aggression,” and “macro-sensitivity.” Surely, others are lurking.

Charles Suhor had a forty-year career as an English teacher in New Orleans public schools and Deputy Executive Director of the National Council of Teachers of English (1957-1997), He worked as a drummer with Tom Brown, Al Hirt, Buddy Prima, Bill Huntington, and others and has written for Down Beat, Jazz Archivist, Teaching Tolerance, and others. He is author of the award-winning Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970 (2001) and Creativity and Chaos: Reflections on a Decade of Progressive Change in Public Schools, 1967-1977 (2020). Write to him at [email protected].

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