With the beloved children’s author Dr. Seuess being the latest on the chopping block of what is being called “cancel culture,” it is once again worth taking a look at things historically. First, was Dr. Seuess racist? Yes. I have not even investigated the supposedly racist books, but I know he is a product of his time. In fact, if we have to ask of any historical personality, author, singer, actor, or politician before a certain time, if they were racist or sexist, then the answer is yes. Every time, yes. I am not saying they wore a white sheet and burned crosses, but by the standards of our time, every historical figure said or did something that was acceptable at their time but not in ours.
If we go back to the 19th century, most whites were overtly racist and sexist. It was completely acceptable in their society. We are not talking about just slave holders, but even those who fought against slavery still did not think of Blacks as completely equal. Lincoln falls into this category. He abhorred slavery but would have kept it if it stopped the nation from going to war. He certainly never said or did anything to make us believe he hoped for women’s equality. Even avid abolitionists like Henry David Thoreau, who absolutely hated slavery and demanded its abolition, had an entry in his journal that praised a newspaper column that rejected race mixing and hoped to send freed slaves back to Africa. Though Thoreau fought for women’s suffrage, modern feminists would object to plenty of his words and actions towards women. So, what do we do with someone in early America who was considered progressive towards Blacks and women’s rights, but falls short today?
Let’s jump 100 years, to the 1950s and ’60s. There were still plenty, especially in the South, who were just as racist as the 19th Century. Then there were those who believed Jim Crow was wrong and Black Americans should have the same rights as Whites, but still occasionally told a racist joke or used the N-word because it was still acceptable in polite society. Finally, there were even those represented by the character Matt Drayton in the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The Draytons were a well-off liberal white family who had taught their daughter that all forms of racism were wrong and everyone should be treated equally. They were offended by the N-word. Yet things changed when their daughter brought home her Black fiancé from college. Suddenly her parents faced an internal moral dilemma of what they always believed and what their new reality was.
I am grateful for the MeToo movement. It’s about time we stood up for the treatment of women. The behavior towards women in the workplace in the ’50s and ’60s is despicable, yet it was accepted then and, in some ways, celebrated today. The extremely popular show “Mad Men” has won awards. As depicted, sexually harassing women just seemed part of a normal workday, yet today the entire firm would be under investigation, as it should be. What do we do with the Don Drapers of today? It is easy to take down the street sign of someone in the Klan in the 1960s, but what about the people who were like Matt Drayton or Don Draper? They were fictional, but they represented thousands of men and women in their day. What do we do with people who did not consider themselves racist or sexist in their day but are by our standards today? What do we do if, at their times, slavery was completely acceptable? What do we do today if a children’s author used a racist word that was not considered racist at the time? What about one of America’s greatest authors who at the time was seen as progressive on race and gender issues but does not fit in today?
I hope no one thinks I am trying to say that racism or sexism were ever okay. I am not. Just because something was accepted does not make it right. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am far from perfect, but I try my hardest to live a good life and be a good person. I just hope that in 100 years from now when people are judging me, if I have done something repulsive to them, that they understand I meant no harm. I don’t know the answers. I wish I did. I don’t know if we should stop reading Dr. Seuess to our kids. I don’t know the man or his heart, but his books have brought joy and I think he cared about making kids smile. Though racism is wrong, they would not have been published at the time if they were socially unacceptable.
I don’t want any Black children in any way to feel “less than. ” If Dr. Seuess makes them feel this way, then maybe we should stop reading those books. But I do worry about where it ends. I will go back to my original point. I believe that if we investigate anyone before the modern era and ask if that person is racist or sexist, the answer is yes. If we set that as the standard, we basically remove all classic literature, music, culture and historical figures. That does not seem to be the answer. Somehow, we need to come to an understanding and some type of historical forgiveness.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.