Cat in the Hat is a racist caricature of a Black man

Cat in the Hat is a racist caricature of a Black man

As a kid, I loved Dr. Seuss. “Cat in the Hat” is one of the first books I read.

In a study examining 50 of Dr. Seuss’ children books and 2,200 characters created by Dr. Seuss, only 2% of the characters in his books are people of color, 98% have anti-black or anti-Asian racist tropes.

“Seuss’ ‘Cat’ serves as one example of how racism hides openly – indeed, thrives – in popular culture for young people.” 

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books“— Philip Nel

“The Cat’s minstrel ancestry reveals Seuss’ racial unconscious, indicating how his imagination resuscitated and revised early twentieth-century stereotypes.”

And as an adult, for me it is clear Dr. Seuss Cat in the Hat was supposed to be a caricature of a Black person. It was Seuss appropriating Black culture in the grossest yet most common ways.

Cat was African American slang for man in the 1920s.

“Slang sense of “fellow, guy,” is from 1920, originally in African American vernacular; narrower sense of “jazz enthusiast” is recorded from 1931.”

Online Etymology Dictionary

Seuss, known during his 1920s college days at Dartmouth as Theodor Geisel, liked Jazz and regularly fetishized Black culture. 

He wore blackface in a performance in high school. He capitalized on the N-word and on racial stereotypes of Black and Asian people in the satire magazine Judge.

Spencer Allen, The Darthmouth

Of course people change, but clearly the only thing Seuss changed was his name. Seuss made an entire children’s book series based on the stereotype of a Black man jazz musician.

Seuss —inspired by minstrel shows where people blackened their face to prepare to don racist Black face and do a performance mocking African Americans. Dr. Seuss created this “hip” series with William Spaulding—director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division. 

“Cat in the Hat” was created to challenge the stiff and old-fashioned “Dick and Jane.”

In “Why Johnny Can’t Read “(1955), author Rudolf Flesch concluded that the whole-word (look-say) method taught in “Dick and Jane” was ineffective because it lacked phonics training. Flesch also felt the simple stories and limited text and vocabulary in “Dick and Jane” taught students to read through word memorization and didn’t prepare students for more complex reading which would impact future “job preparedness.” 

Keep in mind teachers were using phonics in the 1950s. Flesch whole theory was false, well the idea that teachers weren’t already doing it was false. No one was using “Dick and Jane” exclusively to teach reading in mid 20th century America.

Flesch’s book came out one year after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Racists, who would rather have no public schools than integrated ones, used Flesch’s book and studies to argue that U.S. inequities were owing to inferior teaching methods by bad women teachers and poor study habits of Black students. 

So Dr. Seuss was part of the “disruption” that took place in education once it was no longer legal to discriminate against Black children.

We all know the bizarre racist and ableist teaching techniques that eugenics flavored standardization creates — “Cat in the Hat” was the beginning of that.

It was supposed to be a fun way for children to learn reading.  

Hip Black caricature is often how white people make things fun, but racism isn’t fun.

Seuss admitted Cat is based on a Black person, his idea of Blackness. He said it was based on Annie Williams, a Black elevator woman at Houghton Mifflin. But he fibbed a bit. The Cat is not based on Ms. Williams. The Cat is a caricature of a Black man from the jazz era.

Every caricature by corporate America has an Annie whose picture they can pull out to go, “Do you really want to disrespect this real, alive Black person?”

Because of the false idea that proximity to blackness immunizes actions from being racist or having racist intent.

This kind of manipulation is literally the origin of “My Black Friend.” Uncle Ben is based on “a beloved Chicago chef & waiter named Frank Brown,” Aunt Jemima is based on a real person too, and here is her picture. “Not a caricature, we pinkie swear.”

Dr. Seuss is the digital black face of children’s books, and we can no longer afford to have Dr. Seuss near children anymore. 

On the graduate college level, we can and should engage with racist children’s text. Those who build the curriculum and write critically about literature must understand what racism looks like in children’ s literature. But for young children whose purviews have not yet been shaped, teachers, curriculum specialists, and ECE directors must keep racist books out of their early childhood centers and classrooms. Racism should not be taught. White supremacy should not be taught. 

According to Derman-Sparks (2010), by the time a child is 3-year-olds, they make judgments on people based on race. The Baron and Banaji (2006) study states that by the time a white child is 7-years-old, those biases are pro-white and anti-black, but the child knows to hide it.

We can no longer afford to have Dr. Seuss in our classrooms. 


Teka Lo, Public Intellectuals

Edited 3/2 to add commentary on Annie Williams

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