And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street: What I Saw
By Lucy Wu
Volume 1 Issue 6
March 18, 2021
Original book cover by Dr. Seuss
If you didn't hear, a few classic Dr. Seuss books, written and drawn by Theodor Geisel, are being banned.
Which books are being banned?
1. And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street
2. If I Ran the Zoo
3. McElligot's Pool
4. On Beyond Zebra!
5. Scrambled Eggs Super!
6. The Cat's Quizzer
To be fair, the books themselves are not exactly being banned. Dr. Seuss Enterprises is simply ceasing further publication of these books. The whole issue is a bit complex.
Can I still read them?
Technically, yes. There's no one stopping you from borrowing one of these books from the library (if they still have it). And if you really wanted to, you could buy a copy for the low, low price of $1,250 (not joking, that was a real price). Rest assured, the price will go down once people forget about this whole controversy. Just know that if I find my copy of the book, no, I won't be selling it for $999 on Ebay.
But I love these books (and Dr. Seuss)! Why did they do this?
Apparently (and evidently), these books contain racist imagery and stereotypes. But I'm with you. I (ironically) grew up reading the books. Even as a Chinese immigrant who could barely greet the mailman, my mother appreciated them too. She did her best to try and read to me each and every day by scrawling the Chinese translations and phonetic pronunciations in the margins of the book. I sat next to her and listened while she enunciated each word with her heavy accent and broken English (Luckily, I picked up the mechanics of the language faster than she did!)
At the time, I didn't really understand why English was so difficult for her. After all, she lives in America and not China, so she should be better at speaking the language of her new country, her new home. But now that I'm older, I think I can finally see it for what it truly was. This "American" book (and many others) was not only a piece of my childhood, but a means for a foreigner to assimilate. Through learning English, her children wouldn’t need to use their mother tongue. They could blend in with the other American kids, assimilate to the culture, and become "American," basking in all the opportunities that privilege afforded - all the things that she would never have.
Hold on a minute! There's something wrong!
But while we read sitting on my bedroom floor, the last of our concerns was the image of the Asian boy in the corner (it was honestly not so subtle, looking back on it). It's accompanied by the line "A Chinaman who eats with sticks..." Take a look for yourself here:
Actually, let's play a game: how many offensive things can you find in the image?
The guy is literally yellow
Rice paddy hat (the Asian conical hat)
Chopsticks in one hand
Bowl of rice (I would consider this the least offensive to me just because I do enjoy eating rice a lot)
Whatever "traditional" clothing he's wearing
Did I forget to mention the slant eyes? (sorry, it's so common in stereotypes that this was a given)
Bonus points if you noticed the traditional JAPANESE geta shoes
Sorry to make you go through that. But in order to fight racism in your everyday life, it's important to understand the intricacies of what exactly makes something offensive. From what you saw, some things may have been obvious to you, and others may have been less so. Some of these things may be mentioned by people casually in conversation, and while sometimes it's a joke, a lot of times it's subtle mockery. You can use your discretion to judge which one it is.
"Stop turning minnows into whales"
I think we can all admit that was pretty bad. But the big question now is, do we need to “cancel” Dr. Seuss? There's been quite a bit of controversy. Racism is racism no matter how you slice it. But then again, nothing is black and white, so I'm glad you're here to sort out this gray matter with me.
Let's consider context. He grew up in the 1930s and 40s during a time when anti-Asian attitudes were on the rise. Then, anti-Asian attitudes were also far more ingrained and commonplace in U.S. society than they are now. This is absolutely not an excuse for his choices, because racism is still racism. However, it does provide context as to why he felt comfortable putting such ideas out into the world, and why then it was just another book but now emerges as a hurtful message. In 1987, the line also underwent a slight revision, becoming "Chinese man" instead (the guy also lost his yellow pigmentation and rattail). Still, that does not exonerate the books. Throughout the course of his lifetime, Geisel would publish anti-Asian political cartoons, particularly at the peak of World War II when anti-Japanese racism was most prevalent.
So maybe Dr. Seuss wasn't exactly the innocuous children’s author we all thought he was growing up. But let's talk about the timing of this whole situation. It's a little too "convenient" (in my opinion). If you've been keeping up with the news, you'll know that hate crimes toward Asians have been on the rise due to xenophobia from the pandemic. Still, many groups have been supporting the effort to combat racism. Initially, I thought this was just Dr. Seuss Enterprises doing their part to help stop the perpetuation of Asian stereotypes in literature for young children. Fair enough. However, I did a little more sleuthing and found that in October 2017, a mural was painted in the Dr. Seuss CHILDREN'S museum depicting the SAME Asian caricature from the book. Guess what they did about it? A few authors (Lisa Yee, Mike Curato, and Mo Willems) decided to protest by not attending the event that would be held there. The museum took down the mural and canceled the event, but what did they do about the Asian caricature that was STILL IN THE BOOK? Nothing. Even after it was clear it was racist and that attitudes had changed, there was no action taken. There was no outcry or anger or even further questioning. And while these events took place four years ago, did attitudes suddenly change so drastically that now these books are "outdated" and "inappropriate?" To me, it seems like an act of profitability and convenience to now realize that these ideas are hurtful and need to be removed. But wasn’t it hurtful back then in 2017? Maybe I'm looking too far into this, but I feel this should have happened earlier if it was going to happen at all. Because if it happened then, it would have been a truly genuine step to try and rectify what was wrong. And maybe it's still a genuine effort now, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth from the timing. I wonder if people will still help defend against Asian racism or if the cause will fade once the next big issue arises.
"But it isn't too late to make one little change"
I would like to preface this by saying I am lucky the people in my life are generally all very much not racist (to my knowledge at least), judge me for my personality rather than stereotype me, and even learn to appreciate my culture and heritage. I urge you to have conversations with the people in your life, even if they have the same background as you. Understand that while culture is important and impacts my life on a daily basis, it is not a defining characteristic that can be generalized to any stereotype. Never be afraid to speak out (I know I was for a long time, and I'm still working on that). When you or someone else experiences racism, please say something. Trust me, you might regret it if you don't.
Personally, I don't think we should be actively teaching young children with books that have such blatant racism, just because children are so impressionable. Even preschool-aged children can begin to form racial biases that can impact them for years to come. As much as I want to say "It's ok, they can understand," I really doubt kindergarteners would be able to comprehend the true meaning of race and discrimination while reading Dr. Seuss. They may just see the Chinese caricature as the "Asian one" and start to form unconscious biases against those around them. On the other hand, it's still important to preserve books like these so we can look back on them as historical artifacts. They show us how far we have come in our fight against prejudice, and also how far we have left to go. Hopefully one day, blatant racism like this will be a thing of the past.
"But now I don't know... it still doesn't seem right."
Truthfully, I've done quite a bit of thinking and mulling over what I feel. But I'm still conflicted, so I urge you to do your own research as well and see how you feel.
What should this book represent to me now?
A) A book that will forever remain in my heart as a cornerstone of my childhood, untouchable by society
B) A path for my mother to assimilate her children into American culture through language
C) An example of how media continues to subtly stereotype and oppress Asians
D) A way to speak out against racism in the future
And yet, I don’t think my answer is listed here. There is no right choice. Really though, I would cross out all of those answers and instead circle
E) All of the above.
*All subheadings are lines taken from And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street