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was the cat in the hat black?

29 september 2019

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? asked Philip Nel two years ago in his provocative history of race and children's literature. Even more importantly, how could the Cat be white or black or something in between, and why would that matter? We are used to seeing children's literature as an oasis from social and political concerns. But that "we" is perhaps white people like me, luxuriating in our unmarked privilege. For other kids opening book after library book to find only white protagonists, the distinctly black Cat in the Hat is truly problematic. If he's black, is he a minstrel? If he's white, is he in blackface? Is he a grinning black entertainer, or a true shape-shifting trickster? Nel can't answer the question, but he'd rather "we" – whoever "we" happen to be – didn't avoid it.

Only one chapter of Nel's book is about the Cat; others treat issues of race in children's literature from widely divergent and often oblique perspectives. As Nel's subtitle explains, the overall project is to reveal "the hidden racism of children's literature." One way of hiding racism is simply not to show characters of color: degradation by omission. This can be quite literal, as when books that feature minority characters are given covers that are either abstract or actually feature white, or whitened, protagonists. So few children's books feature characters of color, even in the 2010s, that when those that do fail to display them, diverse stories are doubly hidden.

Nel also cites the problem of genre. Children's books by minority authors, on minority themes, are overwhelmingly history, biography, memoir, and other earnest items. Serious is sometimes OK, of course; but this is also kid stuff, and kids do not live by a diet of Rosa Parks biographies alone. Science fiction, fantasy, dystopia, horror, mystery, even sport fiction (as opposed to the Nth Jackie Robinson biography) tend to be the province of white authors and to feature stories about white kids. Sure, the serious nonfiction does the heavy lifting against racism. But what happens when only white lives look like they involve any fun and imagination?

Nel is particularly trenchant on the trend toward bowdlerizing children's classics. This is actually quite an old trend when it comes to lower-brow series fiction. Old-school Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Clair Bee novels all exist in both original and "updated" versions, the latter excising any racist stuff and leaving the books blandly whitewashed. In the case of the Hardy Boys this whitewashing had started even when I was a child collector, 55 years ago. It has since extended to higher-brow items like Huckleberry Finn, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Doctor Dolittle.

Alan Gribben, for instance, famously gave Huck Finn a facelift that changes the word "nigger" to "slave." This erases, or rather elides, problems for readers for whom the sheer presence of the word "nigger" makes a text unacceptable. But Nel argues that the cleansing raises far more issues than it addresses.

It is not that faithfulness to a classic is mandatory; we are unfaithful to classics all the time when we simply stop reading them, and that's always an option with Huckleberry Finn. It's partly because the racism of Huckleberry Finn is not embedded in the word "nigger." In fact, that word appears in some of the most anti-racist parts of the book, where Mark Twain attacks whites' dehumanization of black people with keen irony. But the word can be expunged (and Gribben has done so) without changing the fundamental racism of Twain's story, which ultimately makes Jim into the foolish plaything of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. At the same time, Nel argues, the sudden pervasiveness of "slave" in the revised text makes the book weirdly about class or economic function instead of about race. How are children going to learn about the dynamics of race in America if we keep dodging the issue and covering it up?

The Cat in the Hat is comparatively "complicated," but as Nel notes, "complicated" is not just something you say when you want to stop talking about an issue. He is determined to explore the complications of Dr. Seuss' feline antihero. Seuss, like Twain, was a relentless progressive. Their racism, then, was not just something "of their time" to be factored out when considering them today. That they were a heck of a lot less racist than their contemporaries only makes their residual racism the more interesting.

And for Nel, this is not just a matter of the well-known Seuss cartoons that demonize wartime Japanese enemies. Those images aren't good, but they don't identify some essential racism at the core of Ted Geisel himself; and Geisel spent the postwar years telling anti-racist stories. Nel is more interested in the origins of the Cat as a blackface trickster, a character who owes his visual form and energies to vaudeville, minstrelsy, older racist children's books, and the general ambiguities of racial clowning in America. It's tempting to see the Cat as pure fantasy. But fantasy is never random. Echoing all sorts of blackface grotesques and Magic Negroes, the Cat in the Hat both liberates and re-enslaves the imagination. And as a sort of meta-confirmation, Nel notes that Dr. Seuss Enterprises won't allow images of the Cat to appear in Was the Cat in the Hat Black? – despite the fact that Nel's chapter on the cat decidedly does not call the books racist. "It's complicated" is enough for the rights-holders to want to distance themselves by many leagues from critical analysis.

Nel is committed to the idea that structural racism is pervasive in America, that "for most of its history, the United States has been a White supremacist police state" (76). Whites who object even by saying "it's complicated" exhibit white fragility, the refusal to acknowledge that the privilege they enjoy comes at the expense of people of color. I guess I'm fragile enough often to ask what the structural-racism argument desires and envisions. Consciousness-raising about structural racism often seems a No Exit enterprise. And with good reason, as racism in America is resilient and implacable. But things have gotten better before, against the odds, and presumably can continue to get better. The recognition of the resilience of structural racism cannot amount to concluding that such racism will always outlast and pervert attempts at reform.

Nel, who is white, thinks locally, in cultural terms. He wants to see more children's books by, about, and for people of color. He wants them to span the whole range of writing for children, and to tell whatever stories their authors want to tell, not those prescribed to them by a (still overwhelmingly) white publishing industry. This, I think, we (white folks, now) can make some progress on, taking Nel's advice to be not just allies but accomplices.

Nel, Philip. Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The hidden racism of children's literature, and the need for diverse books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. PN 1009.5 .R32N47