- Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books by Philip Nel
Philip Nel's study begins with the author recalling the vague sense of discomfort that he felt about his Golliwog doll while growing up as a white American in the 1970s. Although as a child he lacked conscious understanding of the doll's racial significations, the adult Nel wonders if his dislike of the doll might have been an unconscious response to its embodiment of a grotesque racial caricature. This sense of discomfort becomes the driving affect of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, which aims to expose the "hidden" racism of children's literature. Nel observes, "To admit racist content in cherished memories unsettles not only adults' nostalgia, but their sense of themselves" (22). The book undertakes this project of "unsettling," of troubling both the dominance of whiteness in children's literature and the feelings of those who cannot or will not recognize the presence of racism in beloved children's classics.
In clear, engaging prose, Nel speaks from his position as a well-established, white, and male academic. In addition to its historical and theoretical insights, a major contribution of Was the Cat in the Hat Black? is therefore its modeling of a particular mode of activist scholarship. Nel openly acknowledges his positionality and at numerous points even hails his white readers, addressing "those who have the luxury of not noticing [racism], or who have simply become habituated to its pervasiveness" (25). By situating itself in this way, the book labors to embody precisely that which it demands: solidarity from white scholars in performing antiracist work. Here, Nel differentiates between an "ally," who risks little by providing only provisional support, and an "accomplice," who becomes complicit in the fight for liberation (211). Written in a style that [End Page 336] should make it accessible to a wide range of readers, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? is a groundbreaking book in that it not only makes an effort to interrogate structures of oppression, but also questions its own entrenchment in those very structures.
While it shares a title with an essay that Nel published in Children's Literature in 2014, the book expands beyond a critique of Dr. Seuss to examine racism in children's literature from a variety of angles. Taking antiblack racism in the United States as its focus, it confronts issues of both representation and erasure while addressing the social and psychic logics through which racism has been routinely excused, disavowed, or dismissed. In the first chapter, Nel uses the Cat in the Hat's appropriation of minstrel tropes to unfold a broader argument about "how children's literature conceals its own racialized origins" (25). As he notes, fantasy often works to screen racial stereotypes from critical scrutiny. The Cat is, after all, a cartoon feline; according to certain logics, this fact alone should preclude us from locating racism in its playful make-believe. Through cultural and biographical research, Nel deconstructs such justifications to place the Cat within a long history of racial caricature and of associating people of color with animals.
Chapter 2 builds upon this argument to take up pedagogical and ethical questions concerning what we should do with racist texts. Nel argues that bowdlerized versions of children's classics—from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn to Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—purport to cut racist content from their pages while still permitting the problematic ideologies that underpin them to remain intact. For example, the 1981 edition of P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins attempts to clean up the 1934 original by replacing ethnic stereotypes with animals: a Chinese person becomes a panda, and a Native American person becomes a dolphin. Nel argues that by displacing race onto animals, the bowdlerized version merely reinforces the dehumanization of people of color and supports imperialist imaginaries that see exotic lands as empty and open...