Dr. Seuss is like America's favorite crazy uncle. And as with our actual uncles, we compartmentalize his history of blatant racism. We don't love it, but he wasn't always being racist, so as long as we can talk about something else, it's fine. We can stick to safe topics like whimsical stories about cats in hats, green eggs, ham, and stolen Christmases. No reason to even think about how he was responsible for some reprehensible propaganda pieces and super-racist ads. Like these:
Oh, the internment camps you'll go!
Dr. Seuss was a product of his time, plus he eventually changed his tune. (Can you say that of your actual racist uncle?) He was born in 1904. If you're shocked a white American turned out racist after being born at a time when people were still accidentally writing the year as 18-something on their checks, then you must be walking around in a state of perpetual shock. The important thing is that Dr. Seuss realized that racism was bad and became much more enlightened, championing progressive causes and even writing books for kids that not-too-subtly point out the importance of celebrating differences.
Many consider his classic One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish an example of that message. But it turns out that a lot of the subtext of One Fish says the exact opposite, revealing an underlying racism that the good doctor just couldn't get away from. You might want to light some candles, because shit's about to get pretty dark.
Right from the title, we're already all about color differences. Which ... fine. If it's a book whose message is "Differences are good," then we're obviously going to be talking about what makes the characters different. But the story parades before us a variety of animal-shaped beings who all seem to have a disturbingly servile purpose. And they're not animals in the sense that we know animals. They're intelligent and self-aware, and they can speak and drive cars, among other things. The inquisitive white children call them "funny things" and seem to literally own them, referring to them as "theirs," as if they're possessions. They also often are branded with their own names. The institutional iniquity is readily apparent, if you know what I mean. I'm saying these "funny things" are a subjugated group in this world. They're oppressed, get it? Look, they represent black people.
Random House Books
"I don't see color, I swear."
Written in 1960, the book emerged in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Coincidence? Not freaking likely, given Dr. Seuss' less-than-savory artistic history. Even as he outwardly attempted to stress tolerance and acceptance, in his subconscious, he was still the guy who had no qualms drawing those racist cartoons earlier in his life. He was also surrounded his whole life by ubiquitous damaging caricatures that must have crept into his brain. As a result, everyone's favorite nonsense book of childhood memory is actually filled with racist stereotypes.
The story stresses that "funny things" are everywhere. An ominous warning about equality? The "funny things" live alongside the children of the book and do everything that a person can. They push strollers with babies, drive cars, talk on the phone, and own homes. Why aren't they considered equals? A few specific examples:
The Racist Characters
We like our bike. It is built for three. Our Mike sits up in back, you see.
So the lily-white kids own a dude called Mike who always rides on the back of their bike. Uhhhh ... this isn't even one of those moments where we can say, "So far, so good." This section of the book has only four sentences in it, and within those four sentences we find out that the children own a guy, force him to sit in the back, and keep him around only so he can perform forced labor. Not cool, guys.
You're familiar with the "back of the bus" era of history, I'm sure. But just in case: Before the Civil Rights Movement, there were segregation laws that required African-Americans to always sit in the back if they were riding the bus. They weren't quite as happy about it as Mike seems to be. From December 1955 to December 1956, the Montgomery Bus boycott challenged these laws. Maybe Mike should sit wherever he damn well pleases, or stage his own boycott, except he's not even that far along. First, he needs to be freed from slavery.
Random House Books
"In the back, out of sight and mind,
cause we don't wish to see your kind!"
The actual reason the children like Mike, they say, is that he's essentially their beast of burden when they don't feel like pedaling up steep hills. This is a common theme of Dr. Seuss' "funny things" throughout this book: The highlighted differences are often things that are imposed on these guys, not a celebration of something that makes them unique. And being a hill slave isn't the only imposition that calls to mind ugly racial tensions ...