The Cat, The Goof and Musical Mose – Some Notes

by John Holbo on December 16, 2017

I’ve been meaning to write something about Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books [amazon]. It’s caused some fuss. But I was already a Nel reader because, as a sometime Seussian myself, I read and enjoyed and learned a lot from his earlier book Dr. Seuss: American Icon.

There is an inherent risk that any degree of analytic subtly and investigative archaeology breeds ethical over-sensitivity, in a case like this. It isn’t scholarship if it doesn’t bring to light something a reasonably intelligent, moderately informed reader might miss. It isn’t dangerous to tender young minds if it sails over their heads. No 5-year old is going to notice the Cat owes a visual debt to minstrelsy, much less that Dr. Seuss apparently took some visual inspiration from a white-gloved African-American elevator operator named Annie Williams. Who knew? If that’s the concern, maybe it’s not much of one. (Not in the same league as giving a slightly older kid an original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the original, racist Oompa-Loompa illustrations. Here is Nel on the subject, some years ago.)

Since conservatives are super-hyper-sensitive to the risk that someone besides their snowflake-y selves might be even slightly over-sensitive, it’s pretty much impossible for Nel to broach his whole topic without ‘triggering’ the fainting couch set, be he ever so mild about minatory whispers in your shell-like.

But fair is fair: let me give an example of analysis and plausible harm wires maybe getting crossed.

On the one hand, the Cat looks like a blackface minstrel figure. Lots of visual tells, including some I never would have noticed: how much he is portrayed with his mouth wide open. Even the way he has so many kids – Little Cats – in The Cat And The Hat Comes Back. On the other hand, its anti-blackface insofar as instead of a black face, white body, we have a black body and white face. That does interfere with the reading, visually. Also:

People don’t see the blackface ancestry of the Cat for the same reason that they don’t see the blackface ancestry of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, or the Scarecrow. These images are so embedded in the culture that their racialized origins have become invisible. As Robin Bernstein says, “when a racial argument is effectively countered in adult culture, the argument often flows stealthily into children’s culture [where] the argument appears racially innocent. This appearance of innocence provides a cover under which otherwise discredited racial ideology survives and continues, covertly, to influence culture.” This is why contemporary readers don’t see the Cat in the Hat’s racialized ancestry, and why he is able to be read as White.

The problem: what’s ‘the argument’ that is alleged to flow, in its original course, but now underground? The Cat is transgressive and foolish-wise, promising mother won’t mind stuff she will, in fact, mind. If the argument is just there’s something attractive about transgression, that argument actually is racially innocent. If the argument is still racist – African-Americans are by nature threats to social order – that does depend on the Cat reading as black.

But I don’t come here today to complain. Thing is: all the history and visual culture stuff here is deeply fascinating to me. Were it my book, I would spin the ethical upshot more like so. There is a need for more diversity in children’s books, but this point doesn’t follow from any secret Cat facts. It’s separate, although associated when the time to add and subtract from the shelf. As to Cat facts: we are rightfully – if on a case-by-case basis confusedly – concerned about how old stuff is racist, or has unsavory associations with racist stuff. If you are trying to pick between a racist book and a non-racist book for your kid maybe go with: non-racist?

This means, in truly toxic cases, stuff goes down the memory hole, at least as far as the children’s section goes. In a lot of borderline cases, what we do, in practice, is bowdlerize or nudge in what is deemed a healthier direction. New illustrations, lose the egregiously offensive volume in the series, clean up the originally slightly offensive but basically lovable character in any future additions to the franchise, rather than deprive future generations of some enjoyment. That seems the least bad option, mostly, but there’s a reason ‘bowdlerize’ isn’t exactly our proudest editorial mode. Also, I get why Disney doesn’t want Song of the South out there, but you don’t want Disney to lie about it, pretending it never was out there.

The kludge, it seems to me, is writing books like this (and not whining about it, when people write books like this.) You can’t read Philip Nel to a 5-year old. It isn’t practical to do much cultural and media criticism with very young kids (although feel free to try your best.) Let the kid read The Cat In The Hat. But kids should have every opportunity to learn unsavory facts about literary heroes, like Seuss, when they grow. When you know people are going to bowdlerize and memory-hole, even for reasonable reasons, make sure someone is making a record.

In that spirit, here are two things I’ve been thinking about. First, I only recently learned that George Herriman, author and artist of Krazy Kat fame, was of African-American descent, passing as white. Nel talks about this a bit in his book, since Krazy is an ancestor of the Cat. I also learned something else, which I assume Nel also knows but doesn’t discuss. Before the mature genius of Krazy, Herriman had a short-lived series that is about the saddest damn thing I’ve ever seen. The strip is “Musical Mose”, about a stock minstrel clown-type: black traveling musician who is always getting in trouble. Specifically, he is always trying to pass as Irish, as Italian, as what he obviously is not, and getting beat up. And it’s all for love of the music, apparently. It’s weirdly anticipatory of the perverse pleasure Krazy gets from the brick. You do the math.

Second, I’ve been writing about the history of animation – all that ‘shadow of a mouse stuff’ I got into few weeks back. At the very back of Thomas and Johnston, The Illusion of Life, Disney Animation – great, classic book! – there’s “Analysis of the Goof”, by Art Babbitt. Babbitt was an amazing guy, a pioneer, the main instigator of the Disney strike in 1942, and I was having some trouble laying hands on a profile of him from Sight and Sound, in 1974. But here it is. And now I realize that “Analysis of the Goof” was bowdlerized, in the Thomas and Johnston version. “Think of the Goof as a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless, good-natured coloured boy and a hick.” Spoorn – that link goes to his blog – says he substituted ‘coloured boy’ for the n-word in the Sight and Sound original. It’s just dropped completely in Illusion of Life. I get why they edited it. But facts is facts.

Life’s messed up, man.

{ 13 comments }

1

Adam Roberts 12.16.17 at 8:07 am

Not Seuss, but related: I’ve taught Where The Wild Things Are in seminars where students have earnestly decoded the Wild Things as racially black (wide noses, open mouths, jungle setting etc) by way of critiquing the incipient racism of the book’s exoticism. Then I tell them that Sendak’s Wild Things are “actually” caricatures of his aunts/uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles and so on … which is to say, they are Jewish, and not only Jews but refugees from Nazism and Holocaust survivors. Since I find The Author Is Dead rarely ‘takes’ with undergraduates this almost always turns the discussion through 180-degrees.

2

ph 12.16.17 at 11:22 am

@1. Yes. Which can lead to: ‘one has to be at least part dog to detect the whistle.’

3

bob mcmanus 12.16.17 at 1:52 pm

Reading Hayden White on Ranke this morning, which may be relevant but never mind.

1) So I was inspired, looked up Seuss and racist cartoons and learned about the buried Looney Toons. There could be better sources. I also learned that Seuss was peak racist output during the forties, as are those cartoons. Which led to wonder if the 1940s could be characterized by extreme racism/nationalism/ethnicism, for obvious reasons. I did not learn of material quite as horrific during the 30s and 50s.
This might have to do with the immediate permissions of the war years, or perhaps because these cartoonists came of age in the 1910s-20s.

2) But I kind of had an idea that peak nationalisms came a little later, with the liberation movements and de-colonization movements of the 50s and 60s. Pan-Arabism, black nationalism (also a peak during Garvey?), etc. So as racism and nationalism was declining (if it was; Suess kinda apologized to Japanese with Horton) in the places under American cosmopolitan Imperial hegemony, it arose on the periphery with support by the Communists.)

Sort of a functionalist analysis here, racism and anti-racism as useful to power.

4

Tyer 12.16.17 at 2:48 pm

I think the interesting point for me is less that you have racist children’s books that are sanitized to be not racist, but that you have a dominant mainstream nineteenth-century adult cultural formation that gets sanitized and preserved as children’s culture in the twentieth century. There are many more direct vestiges of minstrelsy in contemporary children’s culture than in contemporary mainstream or adult culture. The logic is less “this children’s stuff is problematic but good, let’s fix it,” and more “minstrelsy is bad but we love it let’s preserve it over here because no one can accuse innocent children of racism.”

That Stephen Foster is familiar to most people today as children’s music or not at all is pretty remarkable.

5

Jack Morava 12.16.17 at 5:28 pm

Walt Kelly is a very interesting case, deeply sensitive to southern language and culture both black and white, easily comparable to Herriman. A precursor to Pogo was a series
about a pickaninny (now regarded as a racist term for a black child, but arguably in context originally a term of affection, from portuguese pequenino) named Bombazine.
He deserves serious attention. R Crumb is another case, transgressive and confrontational
about race, with something serious to sayl…

6

Philip Nel 12.16.17 at 5:29 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, John.

A response, if I may? The title of the book is a question for a reason. It is a question. If he is black, what might that mean? What do we do with the fact that the Cat’s ancestry derives from blackface minstrelsy, an African American woman (Annie Williams), and a cartoon character created by a bi-racial cartoonist (George Herriman)? The Cat is racially complicated because race is complicated.

He’s also a prominent example of how racist tropes continue to circulate in children’s literature — often beneath our conscious awareness. And that’s conscious awareness. Because, as I know you know, we’re learning all the time — especially as children. And we’re not always conscious of some of the cultural assumptions we’re absorbing. You write “No 5-year old is going to notice the Cat owes a visual debt to minstrelsy.” I would add the word “consciously” prior to “notice,” and might modify the “No” to “It’s unlikely that a.” Something I’ve learned when presenting this work publicly is that people do notice, even if they can’t always quite name what they’ve noticed. For instance, I’ve had people come up to me after a talk — more people of color than white people — and say that the Cat had always troubled them in a way they could not quite name. Seeing the debt to minstrelsy helped them identify what troubled them.

That’s anecdotal, and so of course should be treated as such. But it is at least suggestive of how ideas circulate in our unconscious, and of why we need to name something in order to see it more clearly.

As for Seuss himself, he, too is complicated — did some suberb anti-racist work in the 1940s and 1950s, and some very upsetting racist work in the 1940s and 1950s. Which is, of course, the point. Even as he did laudable, activist anti-racist work, he — unbeknownst to him, I expect — reproduced and propagated the racism of the culture in which he lived and worked.

So, as you say, kids should learn “unsavory facts” about their heroes — because, well, people are complicated. And, as you also note, we should make sure kids get diverse books and anti-racist books.

By the way, yes, I do know about the Herriman strip — I even managed to work in a reference to Michael Tisserand’s superb Herriman bio, rather late in the game (because it had only just been published). I agree that it would have been interesting to pursue that idea, but, well, only so much room in the chapter.

In conclusion, I’ll return to a motif of this comment (and the book itself): race is complicated.

Thanks again for taking the time to read the book and share your thoughts on it.

Best wishes,

Phil

7

Heliopause 12.16.17 at 9:34 pm

“On the one hand, the Cat looks like a blackface minstrel figure. Lots of visual tells, including some I never would have noticed: how much he is portrayed with his mouth wide open.”

Felix, Tom (of Tom & Jerry), Sylvester, probably a few I’m forgetting. In fact, if focusing just on open-mouthedness then you can probably add a few hundred non-cat cartoon characters to the list.

8

John Holbo 12.17.17 at 12:48 am

Hi Philip, glad to give the book a bit of a boost, and sorry for kvetching around the edges, since I know you’ve endured quite a bit of that already, and certainly some of it ought to have been unnecessary. As you say, your title is a sincere question. But the subtitle is what riles people. Suppose the Cat IS black, in some sense. Does it follow that the book is racist, in some sense? The subtitle, following like that, seems to warrant an inference that would be, strictly, invalid. I know you’ve heard this all before, and more. (I just hope all the controversy has goosed your sales, as consolation!) I think the best rhetorical solution is to draw a bright line, pre-emptively. I’m here to tell about history. I’m here to make some prescriptions about reading lists. The prescriptions are not conclusions of some history proof. The normative case for diversity is independent of that, largely. The history is relevant, and interesting but separate. I know you never said otherwise. But given the inevitability of people reading otherwise, you really need to get out front and defeat the wrong implication. (I suspect I am telling you something you already know, having already taken flak for this for months.)

One little detail I was grateful to add to my private stock. I had no idea that Robert Coover had written a parody version in which the Cat runs for President and gets lynched. Damn. By coincidence, I was just rereading Coover’s “Stepmother”, which floated to the top somehow when we moved house. That’s how it goes when you move. Some old biblio stratum is shifted, tectonically, and you reconsider it. So I’ve been in a Coover mood.

9

John Holbo 12.17.17 at 12:51 am

“Which led to wonder if the 1940s could be characterized by extreme racism/nationalism/ethnicism, for obvious reasons. I did not learn of material quite as horrific during the 30s and 50s.”

I’m not sure that’s right, Bob. There’s just a lot of ‘anti-Jap’ (and anti-Hitler, anti-Mussolini) stuff during the war. From Nel’s book:

‘”A 1923 issue of Jack-o-Lantern, Dartmouth College’s humor magazine (of which he was editor), had a Ted Geisel cartoon in which two thick-lipped Black boxers face off. Playing on the fact that one has a slightly lighter skin tone, the caption reads, “Highball Thompson wins from Kid Sambo by a shade”—with a labored pun on “shade.” For a 1928 issue of Judge, he drew carnival-goers throwing baseballs at a Black man’s head, while the man’s wife berates him: “Out sportin’ again, are yo’, nigger? Jest wait ’til I lay hands on yo’ tonight.” A 1929 issue of the same magazine offers Seuss’s “Cross Section of the World’s Most Prosperous Department Store,” in which a White salesman directs a White customer to choose one of two dozen monkey-faced Black men. The sign above them reads, “Take Home a High-Grade Nigger for Your Woodpile!”’

Nel, Philip. Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (p. 34). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

10

John Holbo 12.17.17 at 12:55 am

The whole thing reminds me of one bit from Seth’s “Wimbledon Green”. There are all these pages and panels of fictitious, allegedly collectible old comics and one of them is “Spooktown”, which is described as ‘beloved racist children’s humor comic’. Which is ingenious for the way in which I’m not sure that’s the right adjective order.

11

Philip Nel 12.17.17 at 6:11 am

Hi, again, John:

Quick reply. Yes, people don’t necessarily get the nuance of the argument — I’ve seen headlines like “Professor says the Cat in the Hat is racist!” which is not what I say. But there’ve also been some good pieces. Not sure if these links will show up, but in case they do,…

Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/12/11/just-how-racist-is-childrens-literature-the-author-of-was-the-cat-in-the-hat-black-explains/?utm_term=.23ebe3ef75b9
• Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/sc-fam-books-cat-in-the-hat-racism-childrens-lit-1212-story.html
TES: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/tes-talks-philip-nel

Not sure of relationship (if any) between coverage and sales. Since it’s an activist book, I aspire — none too modestly — to make a difference. So, more than sales, I hope it’s finding readers. People can check it out of the library, borrow a friend’s copy, etc. There’s also a Google talk for those who may lack the time to read it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgX-QawahyE

Thanks again —

12

SusanC 12.17.17 at 8:33 pm

@7: I’m now wondering if Tom (of Tom and Jerry) is black too. Certainly the woman who owns him is.

I read the Dr Doolittle books when I was a kid, and just going by my memory of them, without rereading them, the problems with them are sufficiently pervasive as to be unfixable.

****

As an adult, I’ve sometimes played the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game – H. P. Lovecraft is another deeply problematic figure, but in a RPG you’re heavily reworking the source material anyway, so might as well fix (or intentionally satirize) the problems of the original while you’re at it. cf. John Brunner’s Concerning the Forthcoming Inexpensive Paperback Translation of the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred.

13

maidhc 12.18.17 at 11:13 am

It strikes me that people have a simplistic view of minstrelsy. For one thing, it wasn’t a single thing, it went through a number of distinct phases in its 100+ year history. In the late 19th century it was intertwined with other types of ethnic humor in the “Melting Pot” years.

Although there was a certain amount of African-American content, a lot of it came from European circus clowning. In its later years it developed into a genuine African-American artform (e.g., Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith).

The outsider trickster figure is such a universal concept, I think it’s a bit simplistic to say minstrelsy used an outsider trickster figure, therefore every artform that uses an outsider trickster figure is racist. Even if the outsider trickster figure in question has some ancestry in something that might have been racist.

I’ve read some people saying that the Fleischer Brothers cartoons featuring Cab Calloway are racist. Putting Cab Calloway on the big screen in the 1930s is racist? How many black big band leaders had a deal like that?

Admittedly there were some racist cartoons that are best forgotten. But playing the game of is the coyote really black and the roadrunner white is stretching .

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