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  • Was the Cat in the Hat Black?:Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination
  • Philip Nel (bio)

In 1955, Dr. Seuss and William Spaulding—director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division—stepped into the publisher’s elevator at 2 Park Street in Boston. As Seuss’s biographers tell us, the elevator operator was an elegant, petite woman who wore white gloves and a secret smile (Morgan and Morgan 154). They don’t mention that she was Annie Williams, nor do they say that she was African American (Silvey). Seuss was on that elevator because Spaulding thought he could solve the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis by writing a better reading primer. When Seuss sketched this book’s feline protagonist, he gave him Mrs. Williams’s white gloves, her sly smile, and her color. However, she is but one African American influence on Seuss’s most famous character. One source for that red bow tie is Krazy Kat, the black, ambiguously gendered creation of biracial cartoonist George Herriman (Cohen 325). Seuss, who admired what he called "the beautifully insane sanities" of Krazy Kat (qtd. in Nel, Dr. Seuss 70), also draws upon the traditions of minstrelsy—an influence that emerges first in a minstrel show he wrote for his high school. The Cat in the Hat is racially complicated, inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans. The Cat’s influences help us to track the evolution of the African American cultural imaginary in Seuss’s work, but also, more importantly, to exemplify how children’s literature conceals its own racialized origins. Considering the Cat’s racial complexity both serves as an act of desegregation, acknowledging the "mixed bloodlines" (to borrow Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s phrase) of canonical children’s literature, and highlights how during the 1950s—a turning point for African Americans in children’s literature—picture books were a site where race, representation, and power were actively being contested.

Decades before the birth of his Cat in the Hat, racial caricature was an accepted part of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s childhood. D. W. Griffith’s acclaimed Birth of a Nation (1915), released the month Geisel turned eleven, offered a popular and racist depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length "talking picture," starred Al Jolson in blackface. One of Geisel’s favorite childhood books, Peter Newell’s The Hole Book (1908), follows a bullet’s [End Page 71] comically disruptive journey through its pages, including one where a black mammy points to the hole in the watermelon, and addresses, in dialect, a group of wide-eyed black children: "‘Who plugged dat melon?’ mammy cried, / As through the door she came. / ‘I’d spank de chile dat done dat trick / Ef I could learn his name’" (fig. 1). Seuss remembered this book so well that sixty years after reading it, he could still quote its opening verse by heart (Nel, Dr. Seuss 18). If, as Tony Watkins has argued, "books tells stories that contribute to children’s unconscious sense of the ‘homeland’" (193), then these stories may have embedded racist caricature in Geisel’s unconscious, as an ordinary part of his visual imagination.

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Figure 1.

From Peter Newell, The Hole Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1908). Public Domain. Image courtesy Morse Department of Special Collections, Hale Library, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

Seuss’s Political Evolution: From Early Stereotypes to Opposing Prejudice

So, it is not surprising that racial caricature emerges in his work—that he wrote "Chicopee Surprised" and acted in it in blackface, at Springfield High School. Seventeen-year-old Ted Geisel performed as one of the members of the jazz quartet, and as one of the blackfaced "end men" [End Page 72] ("Minstrels Add $300 to Fund for Trip"). Seuss’s early cartoons also offer abundant examples of minstrel-like figures, along with many other stereotypes. 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...