Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Was Dr. Seuss Racist?!? Fake News or a Teachable Moment?

Dr. Seuss is an American icon.  My own children have celebrated his birthday every year since kindergarten at their school.  We have read many of his books at home and I have used The Cat in the Hat in my psychology classes to illustrate children's development of consciousness and morality.
This spring I was confronted by a couple of conflicting images from his past:

Who was Dr. Seuss?  Was he the artist who was criticizing the American isolationist group, "America First" and their inability to question Hitler's xenophobic attitudes in Germany or was he the propagandist who used racial slurs and Asian stereotypes to depict Japanese-Americans at the time of Japanese internment?  Was he both?  Or was there more to the story?
In my classes, we have two catch phrases, "How do you know what you know?" and "I love history" and they combine to help us ferret out the answers to these questions, while also helping us understand how to see what's fake news and what's not.
Most people have no idea of the Dr. Seuss from before The Cat in the Hat, but he drew propaganda cartoons for the US government during World War II.  How do we get that story?
I had my students read the blog post that brought the anti-Japanese cartoon to my attention.  The blog was called "The Angry Asian Man," which told the story of two elementary kids, a brother and sister, who brought flyers about Dr. Seuss' racist past to school to show their classmates that there was more to their favorite author's backstory.  The backstory included his cartoons which had used racist stereotypes to characterize Japanese-Americans at the beginning of World War II.  The kids' great grandparents had been interned, which made their ancestors the targets of Seuss' propaganda.  The kids wanted their classmates to know the rest of Seuss' story and made flyers to educate them.  However, both of their teachers objected to them handing out the information in school and emailed their mother and father explaining what had happened.
The kids' father explained that he and the kids' mother had taught the siblings about Dr. Seuss's propaganda past even though they had read the stories at home.  He also hoped that schools were havens for critical thought, but also pointed out that Seuss had made a change later in life and that he and the kids' mother would have added that part of Seuss' story to the flyer.  In the end he thanked the teacher and moved on.
So, was Dr. Seuss racist?
So, was Dr. Seuss racist?
How do we use the blog post and the cartoon to decide that question?  We have to analyze both.  We start with the big questions:
Text--What is being directly and overtly communicated in the document?  What is it saying?  Summary.
Context--What is the historical context for the document?  Where does it fit in history and why is that important?
Subtext--What is not being directly communicated in the document but is being implied or is being communicated between the lines and how do we know that?
If we can discover the answer to these questions, we can use the document to help us understand our answer to the bigger question, in this case, Was Dr. Seuss racist?
In order to get to the core of these big questions, we use the basic question words to get to the bottom of the document and how it answers our question:
However, those words themselves need to be stretched to get to us to the core of text, context, and subtext.
How about this?

We take the blog post and the America First cartoon and analyze them using the question words to get us to understand what is the text, context, and subtext.
We use what we know to answer the question, Was Dr. Seuss racist?
However, can the students explain whether or not Dr. Seuss was racist in detail?
Not yet.
From there we add a few other documents to the mix.
First, there is a collection of cartoons that Dr. Seuss created before and during World War II, "Dr. Seuss Went to War" then there is an article, "When Dr. Seuss Took On Adolf Hitler," which gives some background (context?) to what Dr. Seuss did during the war.
After working our way through those documents, we analyze three more documents before we make our final judgement, "Can We Forgive Dr. Seuss?" "10 Facts About Horton Hears a Who," and 
"Kids Use ‘Dr. Seuss Week To Teach Classmates About His Racist Cartoons."  After analyzing them, we ask ourselves, are they all equally important to our understanding of Dr. Seuss and can they help us answer our question?
By breaking down Dr. Seuss and his work, we can gain a much better understanding of the "text," in his case, the point of his cartoons, while also gathering the historical context of his work.  After all the docs, we can clearly glean the subtext to what he was saying about the enemy, which illustrated the prevailing mood in the United States during World War II.  We can also clearly use examples to explain how we know what we think and know about Dr. Seuss.
We have been able to gather evidence to explain how we know what we know about Dr. Seuss.
In the end, my students said that Dr. Seuss was neither a racist nor was he not a racist.  They said his work and his life are much more complicated than that.  They did unequivocally say his anti-Japanese cartoons were definitely racist, but that he had a change of heart after visiting Japan after the war.  They also said his children's books are not racist and have been great aids in helping them understand the world.  They also said that all of this was legitimate information, but that some documents were more valid and trustworthy than others.  In other words, the allegation that Dr. Seuss was a racist was not "fake news" but something much more complicated that needed analysis to gain a fuller understanding.  For our class this year, it was definitely a teachable moment and yet another great reason for me to exclaim, "I love history!"
So, what do you think, was Dr. Seuss racist?  Analyze the documents and let me know what you think.
Learning is My Business!

Links from the post:

  1. He Was Not Who You Think
  2. Dr. Seuss goes to War
  3. When Dr. Seuss took on Adolf Hitler
  4. Can We Forgive Dr. Seuss?
  5. 10 Facts About Horton Hears a Who
  6. Kids Use ‘Dr. Seuss Week’ To Teach Classmates About His Racist Cartoons
  7. Analyzing Primary Documents Presentation

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