A half-century after the civil rights movement, the share of school children in this country who are not white has grown to half of all kids enrolled. Yet the number of children’s books published featuring children of color never surpasses more than 15 percent in any given year.
This glaring imbalance points to a state of “literary apartheid,” argues Philip Nel, a scholar of children’s literature whose new book contends that beloved children’s classics reflect America’s ugly racist past (and present). He castigates the clubby children’s book publishing industry, where the vast majority of writers, editors and publishers (89 percent, in one survey) are white, for the marginalization of books that feature black, Hispanic and Asian characters.
Nel’s historical critique of the industry, “Was The Cat In The Hat Black?”, depicts a sinister system in which children are inculcated with racism by means of cuddly animals and make-believe creatures, like the peculiar Oompa Loompas of chocolate factory fame.
Nel, a white scholar at Kansas State University, contends too many white people are blind to the systemic racism and white privilege, much of which they absorb early in life through children’s literature.
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Like a detective working a literary crime scene, Nel patiently builds his case by piecing together clues and evidence in well-known stories from Dr. Seuss, and in the current young adult fiction renaissance. Nel uses such terms as invisible, covert, hidden, absence and erasure more than 70 times, by my count, to describe systemic racism’s clandestine modus operandi.
The star witness is the 60-year-old “The Cat in the Hat,” whose origins Nel traces to minstrelsy and blackface caricature. Underneath his feline aspect, this hep cat threatens the stability of a white household and challenges the white social order. The clues to the cat’s black lineage have been so effectively covered up that they have to be meticulously decoded to demonstrate how the story reflects subconscious white fear of black power.
“Seuss’s ‘Cat’ serves as one example of how racism hides openly – indeed, thrives – in popular culture for young people,” Nel writes. “The Cat’s minstrel ancestry reveals Seuss’s racial unconscious, indicating how his imagination resuscitated and revised early twentieth-century stereotypes.”
Then there’s the fascinating but creepy episode of Roald Dahl’s Oompa Loompas.
In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” first published in 1964, the original inhabitants of Loompaland were African Pygmies, clearly depicted in an illustration reproduced in Nel’s book. In the 1973 edition of Dahl’s book the creatures appear as diminutive white people. A tribe living in thick jungles, the carefree, laughing Oompa Loompas are shipped in packing cases to Europe to labor in a chocolate factory. Sound familiar?
Nel, along with other critics, read this as an allegory for enslavement of Africans and the glorification of colonialism.
But rather than scrub racism from the pages, Nel advocates for restoring the original crude stereotypes, like the African Oompa Loompas, to jolt readers out of their complacency. The restoration work will have to be limited to academic research like Nel’s; publishing overt stereotypes in kiddie lit is not likely to win favor with the publishing industry, parents, teachers, librarians and the reading public.
In his assault on racism, Nel treats white denial of racism as a symptom of the problem. Playing innocent and acting hurt are the default defensive postures of the white power structure. Nel even dedicates several pages to analyzing the psychology of “White fragility,” the coping strategy some whites employ when confronted with their racism and privilege.
Still, there’s no way getting around it: Nel’s case studies can seem forced. Some readers will have a hard time making the link between the Cat in the Hat’s outlandish costume and subliminal racist messaging. After all, the connection was not evident to Dr. Seuss himself or to generations of readers, white and black.
Readers might also be puzzled by Nel’s condemnation of “The Hunger Games,” the 2008 blockbuster dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins. Nel faults the author for focusing almost entirely on class and gender, rather than on race – as if that artistic decision in itself were an unpardonable literary transgression. Nel is also exercised that the novel’s jacket omits depictions of humans, “further turning attention away from its racially embodied characters.”
To any hint that Nel can be overzealous in the fight against racism, the academician offers a sharp rebuke.
“In case this is not obvious, White people – especially those afflicted with White fragility – should get over themselves,” Nel writes. “Remember that, in America, people of color face racism nearly every day. So, White people, if you think someone is overly sensitive about race or weighing race too heavily in her analysis, then ask yourself: how would I feel if I faced racism daily?”
“Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books,”
By Philip Nel
Oxford Press, 288 pages