What Dr. Seuss can still teach us

What Dr. Seuss can still teach us
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Dr. Seuss Enterprises, a private company, has chosen to respond to consumer desires while seeking to maximize the sales of their products in the long run in a capitalist free market.

To this end, it has announced that it will no longer sell six individual children’s books written decades ago by Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, because of the books’ racist depictions of Asians and Blacks. This decision has engendered fury and cries of “political correctness” from the right — the same people who usually view the unfettered free market as the paragon of individual freedom. 

As is often the case, a bit of historical reality ought to be injected into this conversation. When I was a young man destined for a career as a physician and medical historian, my mother, an eighth-grade English teacher, presented me with two books from our home. They had been childhood storybooks read in the 1940s by my oldest sister. They were scribbled with my late sister’s crayons. My mother told me to set these books aside because, in the future, she thought they would be the source of historical lessons.

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The books are “Little Brown Koko” and “Little Black Sambo.” The first was a collection of stories written by Blanche Seale Hunt (1912–1973) and serialized in magazines before being collected as a children’s book. The book was wildly popular and sold more than 600,000 copies. They were promoted to be read aloud to children. In each chapter, Koko gets himself into and out of mischief  in racist-tinged dialogue and characterizations that  make the modern reader cringe. The illustrations are grotesque in their stereotypes. The second book, “Little Black Sambo,” was written by Scottish author Helen Bannerman (1862-1946) and published in 1899. Another very popular children’s book of the first half of the 20th century, the plot concerns an Indian child who outwits four hungry tigers. Bannerman was, of course, writing during an era of British colonial rule over India. The verbiage is blatantly racist. In my late sister’s edition, the illustrations clearly depict India. In many American editions, however, the illustrations are unequivocal painful Black stereotypes. 

American book publishers have a long tradition of publishing children’s books and then removing them from the market when tastes or societal value judgments change. “Little Brown Koko” is no longer sold. You can still buy a version of  “Little Black Sambo” without the racist names and illustrations under the name “The Boy and the Tigers.” Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches stories were, at one time, extremely popular. The same for the classroom and gridiron adventures of redoubtable “Dink" in "Stover at Yale.” You’d be hard-pressed to find either of them in a children’s library nowadays. The same goes for the hundreds of “Tom Swift,” “Hardy Boys” and “Bobbsey Twins” books that were churned out and were the literary grist of my childhood. Book publishers  don’t want products that won’t sell because they either offend or do not interest their customers. That’s neither political correctness nor cancel culture. It’s maximizing profits. 

No one, of course, is preventing anyone from reading the six titles that Dr. Seuss Enterprises will no longer be publishing. We can be sure that there will be hundreds of thousands of used copies easily available in the same way that you can get your hands on any other title by shopping in a used bookstore or online.

Children should not be given toys that fire projectiles, can catch and harm little fingers or cause burns. They also shouldn’t be reading books that teach them to denigrate other children because of their race or religion.

It’s worth remembering the lyrics of the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the 1949 Broadway musical “South Pacific.”  

You've got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You've got to be taught

From year to year,

It's got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

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To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!

As usual, my mother was right. My sister’s storybooks were worth keeping to carefully teach another generation a lesson. I hope adults learn that lesson and do not pass their mistakes onto yet another generation of children.

Edward C. Halperin M.D., M.A., teaches medical history at New York Medical College, where he is also chancellor and chief executive officer. This essay represents his opinions and not those of the college.