Naturalism, Dr. Seuss, and Me

If you haven’t heard by now, this week Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that they will cease the publication of six classic children’s books which “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Now, this didn’t come as the biggest surprise to me; Theodore Geisel’s racism manifested in numerous political cartoons, support for Japanese internment camps, and blackface. But that this racism had extended to the stories which so defined my childhood—stories like And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street! and If I Ran the Zoo—was a disappointment for which I was thoroughly unprepared.
And yet, as I perused article after article, book after book, the racist imagery became apparent in monkey-like depictions of tribal Africans and Asian “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell” (those are real quotes from If I Ran the Zoo). I knew that I must have read those words countless times–seen the images of yellow-faced Asian men literally carrying a white man with a gun on their heads—and simply thought nothing of it.
As we learned in our readings this week, naturalism, which Irving Howe defines as a sort of scientific detachment from the subject matter, is a philosophy with which Baldwin proves particularly concerned. Of his own encounters with racism, he says, “I knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated negroes and how they expected them to behave, but it had never entered into my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way” (CE 68). Clearly, Baldwin exhibits some of that same detachment from the Black condition of which he accuses Wright when Wright withdraws to Paris and ingratiates himself to the French intellectuals, falling out of sync with the Black American experience and seemingly forsaking the cause for which he once so vehemently advocated (CE 266). There is a divorce, a disjunction, an otherness which defines the relationship between both Wright and Baldwin and Black America in these instances.
I would argue that the liberals who Baldwin so distinctly criticizes in “Many Thousands Gone” fall victim to this same otherness when they assert that, “though there are whites and blacks among us who hate each other, we will not,” eager to subscribe to the dream that “the battle is elsewhere” (CE 34). And, as I’ve racked my mind these past few days trying to figure out how I could have forgiven such blatantly racist rhetoric, especially anti-Asian rhetoric, part of me wonders if I didn’t experience some of that same otherness myself. True, I was young when I last read Dr. Seuss, and I am only half Asian, and these are certainly facts which colored my perception; regardless, I can’t help but wonder if I, like Wright and Baldwin and those liberals before me, found comfort in denying my proximity to the issue, and whether this denial was rooted in shame, ignorance, or some concoction of the two. In short, I guess, the question I inevitably return to is this: is naturalism natural?

One thought on “Naturalism, Dr. Seuss, and Me”

  1. I really like the way you incorporated this recent event into your reading of Wright and Baldwin. I too was so disappointed–though not surprised–at the racist language in these children’s books. How had I never seen it before? I learned to read with Dr. Seuss books. I think that sometimes this “otherness-ing” you describe is done as a sort of coping mechanism. It’s hard to accept that you will be constantly put on trial for the entirety of your life because of the color of your skin; it’s also probably hard to accept that your privilege as a white person contributes to the problem. For the latter though, a “divorce” or “disjunction” from the problem seems dangerous. Describing the battle as elsewhere reminds me of the idea of color-blind racism. I feel like these individuals hold an abundance of opportunity in their hands and could instead become race traitors in the way Mab Segrest was. In this way, they would be addressing the problem for themselves as well as for their Black counterparts.

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