The Racism of Dr. Seuss

In the 1920s through the 1940s, Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel worked as a political and advertisement cartoonist, his work appearing in publications such as Life, PM, Judge, and Vanity Fair. He started writing and illustrating children’s books in 1936, but most of the popular works we know today, like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, weren’t created until the 1950s and 60s.

While such books are beloved, Dr. Seuss’ cartoons in the newspapers often contained vilely racist imagery. Depictions of black Americans and Africans played on white notions of black savagery, inferiority, and animalism. His drawings of the Japanese and Japanese Americans served propaganda functions important to the United States, namely presenting them as treacherous and evil to stoke support for the war effort and justify discriminatory barbarism like the illegal imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans in what U.S. officials called “concentration camps.”

To his credit, Dr. Seuss did change his tone over time–it is believed he looked back on his racist fear-mongering with regret. His cartoons about blacks changed first, transforming during World War II to encourage the eradication of anti-black prejudice and support for equal opportunity in the workplace, to unite the nation in its fight against racist, fascist regimes abroad.

Yet at the same time, he was creating cartoons featuring Japanese monsters you see. He wrote to readers that complained:

Right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battlecry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs… We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.

Dr. Seuss visited Japan in 1953 to study the effects of the war on Japanese children, an experience that changed him. He dedicated Horton Hears a Who! to Mitsugi Nakamura, a university dean he befriended there. Horton and books like The Sneetches are widely viewed today as apologies for past racist sentiments and artwork.

One example of his early anti-black racism were ads for Flit, a bug spray. Dr. Seuss’ drawings of Africans strongly resembled apes, a popular comparison of that era–not to mention earlier and later ones.

Another example was a cartoon playing on popular American figures of speech. The setting is a store. Shoppers are looking to buy things one would never buy: a needle for a haystack, a fly for your ointment, a wrench to throw in your machine to make it stop. In the final panel, with their massive red lips, are “n—–s for your woodpile” (a saying that meant something seemed suspicious, likely derived from escaped slaves hiding at Underground Railroad locations). A white sales clerk shows off his black merchandise to a white buyer.

During World War II, the Japanese were widely considered racially inferior, unintelligent, treacherous, savage, and murderous. The majority of the American populace, media, and governmental bodies characterized them as mad dogs, yellow monkeys, cockroaches, vipers, and vermin. Dr. Seuss did his part to feed the bigotry and fear, portraying the Japanese as monsters, as pig-nosed, squinty-eyed, devilish little fiends. Dr. Seuss’ “Japs” were an infestation of street cats, large insects, or terrorists waiting for word from Tokyo to begin blowing up Americans.

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