And then they came for ON BEYOND ZEBRA!
Racist imagery is one thing, but we must also beware performance art masquerading as enlightenment.
Last week I learned that the copy of Dr. Seuss’ On Beyond Zebra that I and my daughters have so enjoyed for years is now officially a collector’s item. The Seuss estate has decided to no longer publish it and five other Seuss books because of their racist imagery.
I get that we might not want to be showing kids some of the images in the other books, where the only black people depicted are exotic, subservient “natives,” or the only East Asian is a Chinese person who “eats with sticks” in To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.
However, I was at first perplexed as to just what was now offensive in On Beyond Zebra and had to page through it carefully. I assume that the problem is with one, or perhaps two, pictures in it that could be interpreted as “Orientalist.”
Here – and frankly, perhaps in this response to pictures in the other books as well – I can’t help seeing something more about gesture and virtue signalling than about genuine concern for shaping young minds.
* * *
Like most of the now discontinued books, Zebra is not one of the better-known Seuss titles, but it has always been one of my favorites and has long been a staple at reading time in my home. It proposes an extra twenty “letters” of the alphabet, each shown as “spelling” the name of some classically Seussian weird animal or object. The book is a wordfest, and an utter delight to read. I have especially enjoyed watching my older daughter. gradually learn to read out the passages themselves:
“And NUH is the letter I use to spell Nutches
Who live in small caves, known as Nitches, for hutches.
These Nutches have troubles, the biggest of which is
The fact there are many more Nutches than Nitches.
Each Nutch in a Nitch knows that some other Nutch
Would like to move into his Nitch very much.
So each Nutch in a Nitch has to watch that small Nitch
Or Nutches who haven’t got Nitches will snitch.”
That is just caviar, and is but one of countless similar passages. The book is not only entertaining but educational, in ways that a linguist like me especially values. It gently gets across the key fact that our letters only approximately reflect the language we actually speak. Note, for example, that there is no way to indicate with an isolated letter, or even a group of letters, the sound of u in put – if you don’t see it in the word itself, no other approximation works: ough, oo, eu, eugh … see how nothing works? English has 26 letters to about 43 sounds, and Zebra introduces the idea, in its goofy way, that there could theoretically be more letters.
But now we are to see the book as some kind of controversial contraband, and why? Specifically, on one page a man of no delineated race (and thus we would declare him “white,” I assume) is riding a kind of camel and has a mustache. A building in the background seems like, if anything (which it isn’t) some kind of pagoda. The man has the billowy pantaloons we would associate with an “Arab.”
I understand, formally, the idea that this picture signals that this is a Middle Easterner. However, I cannot be honest with myself and view it as a “stereotype.” In no way does this picture ridicule the man (or the animal), and in fact, the camel is a special kind (called a Spazzim) with elaborate horns that carry assorted objects which if anything make this man a mid-twentieth century homeowner, with
And two three-handed clocks,
And his velvet umbrella,
His vegetable chopper.
And also his gold-plated popping-corn popper ..”
This is “Orientalism”? I understood the outcry when the original cut of Disney’s Aladdin movie included a tossed off joke about dismembering people for crimes. Here, however, I suspect I speak for a great many perfectly enlightened reasonable people in seeing this man on his Spazzim as just a goofy picture.
After all, some people in some parts of the world do ride camels. Why is it an insult to draw that? As to the possible interpretation that this person in the Middle East is the only Middle Easterner depicted and that it leaves an implication that all Middle Easterners ride camels happily, 1) this man is drawn as white (leaving aside just which race we consider Middle Easterners to belong to) and 2) how is it an insult to show someone riding a camel?
And then, upon what empirical basis are we assuming that even if a child places this picture as depicting someone in the Middle East, it will lead them to think “All Middle Eastern people ride camels”? And again, even if my some chance they fell under this misimpression for a spell, is this really the equivalent of their learning that all black people are weirdly-clad servants?
Then another page has a man whose hat and shoes could also be interpreted as Middle Eastern. But he also could be read as Balkan, or just, well, Seussian – and the weird object this time is a bagpipish instrument with the Celtic name of the “O’Grunth.” This is Orientalism?
* * *
Of course there are degrees with such things. I have immersed both of my daughters in Looney Tunes since birth, as they are staples of my existence and always will be. However, I have not included the few with pitilessly dismissive caricatures of black people such as Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves – they can take that kind in later when they have more context. Someone once gave me a book of old Little Lulu comics (apparently Lulu stayed somewhat more popular in Canada than here for a while), and when my older daughter enjoyed them I decided to take a look with her at a series of cartoon shorts with her from the 1940s (done by the same studio that did Popeye). I quickly realized why these get around so little today. Now and then they show a black maid who is drawn so animalistically that my daughter actually thought it was a bear. We have plenty of things to watch besides that, which I myself feel insulted by even at decades’ remove.
But the cancel culture mood neglects degree, in favor of oversimplification, absolutism, and ultimately fear. The Seuss people apparently quake in their boots at the possibility that a certain kind of person or organization will accuse them of the cardinal sin of racism, especially given that almost inevitably, as a cartoonist raised in the early twentieth century Seuss, even as a man of the left, penned some images that qualify as unquestionably racist today. So, not only do “natives” have to go, but even Spazzims and O’Grunths.
On degree, the issue is priorities. I, for one, think that the joy my girls get out of the closely rhymed verse and classic wit in On Beyond Zebra is more important than whether they will think, on the basis of a single illustration, that all Middle Easterners exhibit the shame of riding a particular animal and having mustaches.
Especially given that the person, to them, reads simply as a generic “person” -- and I asked, to make sure – neither of them realized he “was” anything different, “was” a class of person in some way. They don’t even know yet what an Arab is, and crucially, by the time they do, they will be cognitively advanced enough to take in that camels and mustaches are hardly universal to people from Middle Eastern countries. I simply do not see what harm On Beyond Zebra has been doing to them, to other young minds, or to enlightened thought in general.
* * *
On Beyond Zebra teaches kids to think out of the box. The idea that a labored interpretation of a single page in the book renders it suspicious contraband is a kind of thought trapped very much within a box, a modern proposal that we show that we are good people via performative paranoia.
Yes, I know opinions will differ, that I’m free to do with my kids what I want to but many will prefer to toss out their On Beyond Zebra or will proudly make sure not to get around to showing it to their kids. However, I will continue to read it to mine, I dismiss any claim that to question its discontinuation is to be a white supremacist, and I hope that other people will avoid a sense that to not see logic incarnate in decisions like this one about On Beyond Zebra makes you a bad person in some way.
Morality requires engaging degree, not dismissing it.