The Most Racist Thing You Read As A Kid (Was By Dr. Seuss)
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.
"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.
"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 ...
We took a look. We saw a Nook. On his head he had a hook. On his hook he had a book. On his book was "How To Cook."
OK, here I can say it: So far, so good. The kids come across a Nook, which we can surmise is not its name but its ... race? Cultural identity? Species? Who can say. What we do know is that the Nook has a cookbook and is attempting to use it for its intended purpose: to learn to cook. Maybe he's got a dead-end job and wants to make a career switch. Maybe he's finally following his dream and going to culinary school. Whatever the case, here we are.
"When they learn new skills, we must be aware,
they'll take our jobs, and demand wages fair!"
The kids take a look, we're told, and are immediately suspicious of the Nook because, they say, "A Nook can't read." No Nook can read, ever? But ... why? It isn't for the same reason that, say, your dog can't read. Despite the fact that the kids can apparently own some of these beings, it's pretty well-established that we're not dealing with simple animals here. I mean, look at this guy:
"It uses paper books, despite its name?
Inferior genes are clearly to blame."
I'm not here to comment on his pink onesie or the tallness of his crazy hat, but the fact that he's wearing those things at least qualifies him as sentient enough to understand that no one wants to see his Seussian cock and balls. He chooses to dress himself in a more-than-basic way. He is also aware of cooking, and that this book has the information he needs. In other words, he can think and reason. So why wouldn't any Nook ever be able to read? Hint: It rhymes with "racism." Yeah, it's a pretty exact rhyme scheme.
Understand that this isn't a stretched observation. Until the 1960s, many governments in the South administered literacy tests to potential voters. These tests were intended to, and did, disenfranchise racial minorities, as education and therefore literacy were things that they had more limited access to. Rather than looking at the underlying causes of illiteracy among minority groups, many prominent racists decreed that it was because of the people themselvess, rather than their circumstances. Not only was this used to suppress voters, but it also gave a renewed prominence to the stereotype that black people are not as smart as white people.
The white southerner may be dumb as shit, but he can spell "he," and that's good enough, apparently.
The children embody this idea perfectly, taking it for granted that the Nook is going to fuck it up because he's a Nook. They point out his illiteracy as the natural state of things. The fact that the Nook is attempting to read is written off as ridiculous. And then Barnes & Noble named their e-reader after this moment and we all lived happily ever after.
This one, I think, is called a Yink. He likes to wink, he likes to drink ... The thing he likes to drink is ink.
OK, this is as straightforward as it gets. The Yink loves to drink. It's basically all he does. Just winks and drinks like he's perpetually attending Ladies' Night down at the Copacabana. It's obviously a not-so-subtle nod to the stereotype that minorities are predisposed to becoming leering addicts who will do anything to get their fix -- even drink ink, for crying out loud.
"Their kind likes to drink, without regrets
and smoke their filthy jazz cigarettes!"
Haha, just kidding! It's actually way worse than that. It turns out that a number of caricatures from back in the "good old days" display African-American children as having derived their skin color from drinking ink. Unlike most of the "funny things" that we see, the Yink doesn't stand on two legs. It crawls on all fours. What else crawls on all fours?
There are some fucked-up origin stories out there, but this one sits high up on the fucked-upness charts. The caption on this hilarious 1916 cartoon reads "[N-word] Milk":
Only they didn't say "N-word."
References to ink in racist contexts aren't just innocent little goofs. The underlying idea is that there's a natural way to be, which is white, and if you're not white, then you must be doing something unnatural to make yourself that way. So when Dr. Seuss highlights the proclivities of the Yink who likes to drink ink, he's having fun with a very specific, historically racist reference. And hey, for bonus points, why couldn't it also be the drinking problem thing? Here we have another example of one of the differences that he's highlighting being weird at best and hinting at a huge problem at worst. Addiction played for whimsy. This Yink can't fucking handle himself around ink.
I like to box. How I like to box! So, every day, I box a Gox.
The visual on this one is important, so let's take a look:
"Lose to a Gox? A guffaw and big nope!
Witness the power of the great white hope!"
The alabaster ghost of a kid is fucking fierce. He boxes this guy every single day, and the size difference alone would preclude it from ever being a sanctioned event. He's literally fighting someone two or three times his size, daily, just for fun. What of the Gox's feelings about this arrangement? Fuck him, that's what. You see, like with Mike before, this kid owns the Gox. He'll box his Gox whenever he wants. But that's just the beginning (and also a new euphemism which I hope catches on).
Let's talk about the size difference. A very old caricature of African-Americans is that of the "brute" (our modern equivalent code word is "thug"). The brute stereotype defines a violent, aggressive man who is intellectually inferior in contrast to his physical prowess. That may seem like a tenuous connection to the Gox, but wait, there's more! Jack Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, and his experience is one of the most famous examples of this terrible stereotype in action. Despite his success and clear skill, he was consistently considered inferior to white boxers. His strategy to avoid punches and emphasize defense -- smart moves when someone is trying to punch your teeth out -- won him fights but also the ire of racists, who considered such techniques cowardly when a black man was the one using them successfully. Because of this, he was branded as having "a yellow streak." Let's put a pin in that for a second.
"Real men eat pudding through a straw and forget the alphabet before they're 30!"
In order to dethrone Johnson, white promoters searched for what they called "The Great White Hope," because racists are too busy being angry and dumb to come up with a more creative name. What they wanted was a white boxer who could defeat Johnson so they could go back to touting white superiority. That "hope" came in former champion James Jeffries. The thing you need to know is that Johnson beat the Great White Hope into a lowly bruised afterthought. This led to nationwide acceptance of the idea that a black boxer could be better than a white boxer, and everyone gathered for a post-racial party.
And never did the media insult a black athlete again.
Well, not really. Race riots, that's what actually happened. The result of the fight cemented the "brute" caricature and the idea that Johnson's strength and "cowardice" -- his yellow streak -- were the secret to his success. And wouldn't you know it, yellow is one of the four colors (if you count black and white) in the Gox illustration, and the word "yellow" appears twice in the five sentences of text we get.
The fact that this child can box someone so much bigger than him, day in and day out, suggests he has some other edge on his Gox. Perhaps it's his yellow socks? Or maybe he's just the next Great White Hope.
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Find out what Dr. Seuss never actually said in 5 Famous Figures That Stupid People Love to Misquote and learn why Dr. Seuss hated children in 5 Beloved Celebrities Who Were Nothing Like You Think.
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