One of my favorite songs in Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods is the finale, Children will Listen. The opening lyric says, “Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.” That song could have easily been about me as a child. I soaked up everything around me, whether it was books, music, or television. From a very early age, I would put on performances of the things that I learned. My mother likes to tell a story about me as a two year old, sitting on her lap at the doctor’s office, reciting nursery rhymes. Once I realized that the other people in the waiting room were listening, I quickly jumped off her lap and took my rightful place center stage to entertain my captive audience. As much as I loved my nursery rhymes, cartoons were my absolute favorite. I knew all the catch phrases of my favorite characters and would even do the voices. FYI- I had a pretty mean “I tawt I taw a putty tat”.
One morning when I was about five years old, I was watching a cartoon, and one scene struck me as particularly amusing. I rushed into the kitchen to show my mother my interpretation of it. Looking up at her, I did my best Al Jolson impression, even though I had no idea who Al Jolson was, and my five year old brain didn’t understand why she didn’t find it funny. Maybe she didn’t understand the joke. So, I explained it to her. I explained that I had said “mammy” instead of “mommy”. That’s why it was funny. I waited for her to get it, but she didn’t. That’s when it was her turn to explain something to me.
For those of you who don’t know who Al Jolson is, allow me to educate you, much in the way that my mother educated me that day. Al Jolson was a singer and actor who came to fame through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were very popular in 19th century and early 20th century America. They consisted of skits and music performed by white people (and sometimes Black people) in blackface, portraying Black people. This kind of performance promoted racial stereotypes and depicted Black people as stupid and lazy. Jolson was proclaimed “the king of blackface”. To give you an idea of how popular blackface and minstrelsy were in America, in the 1920s, Jolson was America’s highest paid entertainer. At one point, he was even known as the world’s greatest entertainer.
That day in our kitchen, my mother taught me about racism. She also taught me about how the entertainment industry is used to perpetuate it. It took me a few decades of personal experience to fully get that one, but she at least laid the groundwork. Let’s be real. America was founded on the principle of white supremacy. That principle is constantly being reinforced by our popular culture. Sadly, that includes our children. There’s a song in the musical South Pacific called “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”. It’s about how racism is something that is taught and cultivated. Unfortunately, in America, that cultivation begins at a very early age. Looking back as an adult, it’s mind blowing for me to realize just how much innocuous racism was baked into the cartoons that I grew up with. In Disney alone, there’s the crows in Dumbo, the Indians in Peter Pan, and don’t even get me started on Song of the South. But Disney was not the only culprit. Bugs Bunny cartoons made during World War II featured a Japanese character with squinty eyes, buck teeth, and stereotyped accent, and the other characters referred to him as a “Jap”. In Tom & Jerry, Tom’s owner was often depicted as a mammy character, with a child who always followed her named Honeychile. Regardless of company, the most ubiquitous racist cartoon trope was when something would blow up in a character’s face, instantly putting them into blackface, leading to a minstrel show moment like the one I had with my mother.
You know who else understands that hatred has to be taught? The KKK. In 1990, the Missouri Klan chapter decided to target kids with racist phone messages. The recordings had someone impersonating Mr. Rogers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. They even used some of the sound effects and music from the show. The recording starts with the Faux-Rogers pointing out a Black child on the playground as a “nigger drug pusher” and ends with the aforementioned child being lynched.
The pervasiveness of casual racism and the depths of venomous hatred embedded in American culture are indeed disheartening, but there is cause for hope. Just because our society started with racism, that doesn’t mean we are forever bound to it. Change is possible. Indeed, change has long been a part of our story. For instance, in 1968 United Artists pulled eleven of the most offensive Warner Brothers cartoons from circulation. These cartoons, widely known as the Censored Eleven, were basically animated minstrel shows and included titles such as Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.
In 1969, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, when towns all over the country were closing public pools, rather than integrate, Mr. Rogers stepped up. He aired an episode that featured a Black police officer, Officer Clemmons. In this episode, on a hot day, Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons took off their shoes and soaked their feet together in a wading pool. While we’re talking about Mr. Rogers, I have to note that when he found out that the Missouri KKK was using his show to spread racism, he took them to court and won. The result was that they had to stop playing the racist messages and actually destroy the recordings.
This progress has continued through the years. In 2001, after they had acquired the rights to all of the Bugs Bunny cartoons, Cartoon Network pulled twelve shorts from its Bugs marathon, due to issues of racial insensitivity. Yes, kids, Bugs did blackface too. It’s sad but true. According to a New York Times article by John Leland, when questioned about the decision to omit these shorts, Mike Lazzlo, senior vice president of programming at Cartoon Network said, “My great fear is that a 6-year-old stumbles upon one of these cartoons and doesn’t have the wiring to understand the environment these cartoons are made in.’’
Disney has also joined in this progress. In the ’90s, when a song in Aladdin drew criticism about a lyric, they changed it. They also removed Song of the South. It hasn’t been seen on American TV since 2001 or anywhere since 2006. In the aftermath of the George Floyd protests in 2020, Disney even decided to redo the Splash Mountain ride, due to its use of racial stereotypes. In recent times, they have even started airing disclaimers before certain episodes of The Muppet Show.
Before we continue, I need to make something clear: None of these things should simply disappear. They need to be recorded and preserved for the sake of history. If we just erase them and leave no trace, that creates a void and a false narrative of our reality. That would not only give cover to virulent racists who could claim that such bias never existed, but it would also prevent future generations from knowing about the battles that we have waged in the name of racial equality. All of these racist cartoons should be preserved, but the context in which they are presented is of the utmost importance. They should be acknowledged, but not celebrated. The best parallel I can give is the fact that Germans have two kinds of monuments: Denkmal and Mahnmal. One commemorates things they are proud of and want to celebrate, and the other represents things they are ashamed of and want to ensure never happen again.
In the same spirit as those changes, Seuss Industries recently decided to remove six books from publication. This announcement brought a surprising amount of push back. There was much yelling, screaming, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. People loudly shouted of cancel culture and railed against the woke mob. This push back really made me think. What was so upsetting about this? Why were people so bothered? After a great deal of thought, I arrived at a conclusion. From my perspective, there are three groups of people who were upset by this turn of events:
Group 1: Bad Actors
This is a group of people who know exactly what happened, but they have decided to misrepresent it in order to benefit their personal agendas. A prime example of this is Tucker Carlson. He took to his show on Fox News to fervently defend Dr. Seuss in an attempt to decry cancel culture. In his segment, his go-to book is The Sneetches, a book that was NOT among the six books that we are talking about. I should also note that during the entire broadcast, he doesn’t mention ANY of the books on this list. In his segment, he lauds Dr. Seuss as the epitome of mid-20th century American values, that praise meritocracy and color-blindness. Not only that, but he goes on to say how mid-20th century America eschewed hatred and judged people on the content of their character. Apparently, Tucker’s American history classes never covered Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement.
Group 2: Secret and Not So Secret Racists
This group of people actually sees white supremacy as something to aspire to. To their way of thinking, diversity and multiculturalism are the real racism. That’s why removing these racist images from circulation makes them feel like they are losing something. It’s because they are. Every child that doesn’t see a dehumanizing image of a Black or Asian person will eventually become an adult who doesn’t believe that white people are superior to everyone else on the planet. These people are legitimately looking at the possible end of their point of view, and they’re scared. I get it. Beyond that, I have to say that there is a large overlap between this group and the first group. Tucker is an excellent example of that.
I am quite aware that appealing to either of these groups is a waste of my energy. The last four years have taught me to pick my battles, and that is why I have chosen to focus my attention on the third group.
Group 3: The Uninformed/Misinformed
These are the people that we actually have a chance of getting through to. They either saw a headline and made a knee jerk reaction or have only been exposed to false narratives. I get that. In the 24/7 news cycle, we are constantly bombarded with information, and social media has conditioned us to make snap judgements, even when we don’t have all of the information about a situation. I have definitely been guilty of this in the past. Also, since we live in the age of “fake news”, it’s entirely possible for people to have 100% incorrect information because they put their trust in the wrong source.
In the name of full disclosure, please allow me to present the facts of this particular situation. There was no woke mob behind this. It was 100% the idea of Dr. Seuss Enterprises. They released a statement that they would no longer publish the six titles in question because “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” They made this decision after consulting teachers and experts. This makes absolute sense to me. At the end of the day, Seuss Enterprises chose progress. They understand the need for change and are taking the necessary steps to help move us all forward, even if that means letting go of a part of their past. Are you willing to do the same? Careful how you answer. Children are listening.