So, I've been avoiding the whole Dr. Seuss debacle , as I know the authors involved and I imagine (especially after vicious trolling myself), they probably just want the issue to die away. But the story keeps getting bigger, and recently someone on a friend's Facebook page said how he thought Mo Willems was being a hypocrite for accepting the Theodor Geisel Award from the American Library Association, yet boycotting the museum event.
Lord knows, Mo Willems doesn't need me to defend him, but here's the thing. I received the Theodor Geisel Honor as well and I, too, would've boycotted the museum event. And I don't think it's hypocritical.
So, let's do some background. Theodor Geisel is Dr. Seuss. All children's book creators worth their salt know the history of the industry's greats and almost all of us know Dr. Seuss. So, while most of the mass public doesn't realize this, we know that Dr. Seuss's early career is filled with creations of racist propaganda. He drew horrible stereotypes against Jews, African-Americans--you name it. One of his more egregious cartoons depicted Japanese Americans lining up to receive bombs.
It was 1942, a time where anti-Asian paranoia was at in full tilt. Geisel was a product of his time and reflecting what people were feeling.
However, as time passed, Geisel began to regret his earlier images. It is widely accepted that his beloved book, "Horton Hears a Who!" was his way of apologizing for his earlier art. He went on to write books like "The Sneetches," stories with themes of inclusion and tolerance.
And that is what makes Geisel a good man and artist. Because he was willing to grow from his original mindset, realize the harm the his work could do and get better. That is why he is an artist I am honored to receive an award with his namesake on and why he deserves a museum.
Now, for the museum controversy. The image that is displayed is from Geisel's first book, "And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street" printed in 1937, the same time Geisel was doing his racist cartoons. "The Chinaman" image that is being debated initially had the character bright yellow and with a long pigtail. In 1978, acknowledging that the image could be offensive, Geisel himself changed it so that the character is white and without a pigtail.*
It is now 2017. Even with the character being white and without a pigtail, a great many people (myself included) wince at the caricature. My first reaction is, "Do we really need to see that now? Of all the images of this man's work, do we really need to show this one?"
And, in a Seuss museum, the answer could be yes. However, the answer is only yes if the image is put in context. Viewers need to know, and honestly Geisel himself deserves, an explanation. They need to know Geisel's history with his own art and with this particular image. To display it without context (which, I daresay is a museum's job) reduces the image to mere decoration. And, to many (myself included) an offensive decoration**.
I was not asked to participate in the museum's event, but I cannot fathom trying to read my books in front of the Chinaman caricature presented as it is now. To do an event with this image right behind me, without acknowledging its racism and Geisel's journey away from it, would be pretty insulting. I would have declined to have participate. Just like Mo Willems.
Yet, I proudly display the sticker with Geisel's image on my book.
What is the difference? It's different to me, because when you accept the award it is a picture of Theodor Geisel on the medal; not any of his past racist art--the medal and award is symbolic of him as a whole person. The ceremony is with educated, adult librarians, whom I assume know or should know the history of the him.
The Seuss museum and the event there is for kids and adult who are not aware of Geisel's history. They are at the museum to learn about him and the museum refuses to teach this part of his past. Instead they just show the racist image as decoration. I would not accept the invitation because they are allowing the racist image to stand as a racist image instead of showing it as a part of Geisel's regrettable past.
I honor the Theodor Geisel as a man who outgrew his racism and created some of the best books of children's literature of all time. And without an explanation, I abhor the single image that is displayed.
Which is why I don't think Mo Willems is a hypocrite. And I don't think I am one either.
*Which leaves me with this question--now, forty years later, if Geisel was still alive--don't you think it would be a possibility that he would change it again? If he was willing to do it once because time had changed his mind, what do you think another forty years would do?
**Is this image offensive? Let's break down a couple responses to this question. (fyi, I edited this from my initial posting to add a few more thoughts)
Response #1: "I loved this book, and I'm fine!" (sometimes with the additional, "and I'm Asian!")
Okay, that is great for you. I'm happy you are fine and it didn't bother you. But there are lots of people who images like this hurt, trust me. I am one of them and I have bunch of readers who will say the same. Maybe you weren't teased that your eyes were so small that dental floss could blindfold you, but that doesn't mean I wasn't. Can you at least acknowledge that it is offensive to some people and for good reason? And if you can't find it within yourself to find a little empathy, then perhaps those images affected you more than you think.
Response #2: "This is history! How dare you try to erase it!"
You are mixing up nostalgia for history. No one asked for the mural to be removed, the museum decided to do that themselves because they were unwilling to put the art in context---think about that. The museum would rather take the whole mural down than put a caption that acknowledged Geisel's true history. Here, I’ll even write the caption for you:
“This image of “the Chinaman” was originally printed in 1937 with yellow skin and a pigtail. In 1978, Dr. Seuss, himself, changed the image, acknowledging that his original rendition could be offensive. It is probable, that now, over 39 years later, that if he were alive he would change the image again.”
There, fixed the whole thing! It’s 52 words. Yes, it’s longer than a tweet, but I think it would take about 3 inches space, max. Why was this so hard to add? Why aren't you offended that instead of adding 52 words, the museum decided to take the entire thing down? Isn't a museum's job to educate and put things in context for the viewer?
The artists in question here asked for the art to be put in context. If anything, the artists were trying to give a more accurate view of history.
p.s. I've disabled comments for my blog because I am tired of trolls.