A pair of siblings in Southern California used their school’s “Dr. Seuss Week” celebration as an opportunity to educate their fellow students on the author’s problematic past.
Last week, a South Pasadena elementary school celebrated “Dr. Seuss Week” in conjunction with Read Across America Day, which takes place annually on the author’s birthday. Two students, 11-year-old Rockett and 10-year-old Zoe, were upset to learn that their classmates didn’t seem to know about the racist streak in the cartoonist’s early work.
Before he rose to fame with his children’s books, Dr. Seuss (born Theodor Seuss Geisel) drew a number of political cartoons during World War II. Many of these drawings featured racist portrayals of Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans. The cartoons ranged from stereotypical caricatures to fear-inducing propaganda that vilified people of Japanese descent and justified their internment.
Rockett’s and Zoe’s dad, Steve Wong, is the curator at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles and also teaches Asian American History as an adjunct professor at Pasadena City College.
“Early on, my wife and I have instilled in them to have a strong moral compass and sense of justice,” Steve told The Huffington Post.
Aware of Dr. Seuss’ complicated past, Steve and his wife Leslie read the author’s famous books to Zoe and Rockett. “I still remember trying to read Hop on Pop to my to kids as an exhausted father and falling asleep while reading it to them,” he recalled.
About two years ago, Leslie taught their kids about Dr. Seuss’ racist cartoons and role in swaying public opinion of the incarceration of Japanese Americans.
Knowing this piece of history, Zoe and Rockett decided to share the information about the ionic author’s past with their classmates during Dr. Seuss Week. Together, they created informational fliers to pass out at school.
When Zoe distributed the fliers to her classmates, she received mixed reactions. “Most people agreed that his cartoons were wrong and racist,” she told HuffPost. “Most people didn’t know this and thought it was very interesting, while some people did know but still liked it.”
Some students accused Zoe of spreading a fake rumor, tore up the fliers in front of her and told their teacher, who instructed her to stop passing them out.
Rockett said his teacher confiscated his fliers, “raised her voice” in disapproval and reported the incident to the principal. “I only got to hand out one because my teacher took them away, but that one person said it was interesting.”
Added Steve, “Rockett was mad that he was censored, but ultimately he was ‘whatever’ about the whole ordeal.” Zoe had a more emotional experience.
”Zoe’s teacher ‘neutrally’ told her to stop passing out the fliers, and that the request came from the principal after being notified by Rockett’s teacher,” Steve explained. “Knowing the principal was involved, Zoe was fearful the following days that she was going to get into trouble at school for her actions, and told her mom that she cried several times the first day.”
Zoe told HuffPost she wasn’t surprised some people had negative reactions but was “shocked” to learn the flier had spread to the principal and that she had caused such a problem for the teachers. “It wounded me more when friends told me that multiple girls told on me,” she said.
Still, the little girl found comfort in the friends that supported her. “People who truly agreed helped me be brave for getting in trouble and pushed me to go farther with the fliers,” she recalled.
Following the incident, Steve claimed that Rockett’s teacher sent the following email to him and his wife:
Hello Mr. and Mrs. Wong,
This morning, Rockett came to school with a stack of flyers to hand out regarding Dr. Suess. While he is absolutely entitled to his own thoughts and opinions, school is not the appropriate place for him to hand these flyers out. I am going to send them home with him today after school. I do applaud his civic mindedness.
The dad said he wrote this lengthy response:
I do want to begin my response to your email, and our children’s actions of creating the flyer, by stating that we appreciate the non-racist work of Dr. Seuss. We have a collection of his books in home and we read many on them often to our kids when they were younger. A couple of years ago, we wanted to balance our love for Seuss Geisel’s creativity by exposing our children to the darker side of his early racist works. So while we still respect his art, our family understands that Seuss Geisel, like many others we hold in high esteem, can indeed have a sordid past. Rockett wanted a way to express this to his classmates, and we gave him and his sister the okay to create something to achieve this goal of educating people about Geisel’s past racism. They came up with the flyer on their own without much oversight on my own. Nonetheless, Leslie and I approved what they were doing and are ultimately the ones to be held accountable.
Rockett and Zoe’s great-grandmother and great-grandfather who are still with us today, along with 120,000 innocent others (most of them American citizens), were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to U.S. concentration camps due to lack of leadership, rampant racism, and war hysteria. There was no basis or evidence of Japanese Americans involved in any espionage, and the U.S. has since apologized for the unconstitutional act against its own American citizens. However it is important to understand that Seuss Geisel, helped fuel that racism and war hysteria with many racist cartoons that he published during that time. His cartoons targeting Japanese Americans directly contributed to the public support of Executive Order 9066 (the executive order that incarcerated Japanese Americans). This is not an opinion, much like Hitler’s anti-Semitism is not an opinion, for Geisel’s hatred of Japanese is well documented, and is chronicled in American history books. Unfortunately our family has had a direct impact and has suffered directly from Geisel’s cartoons.
We understand it is in your opinion that school is not for this type of “educational” encounter that Rockett attempted to present today. Perhaps trying to educate his fellow classmates with a flyer may have been a little unconventional and has placed you in an uncomfortable position. We respect your opinion and authority of what is deemed appropriate in your classroom, much as I would expect the same in my classroom, and will of course defer to you about what is appropriate. However I do have to say I disagree in principal with your standpoint that “school” is not the appropriate place to disseminate new, or differing ideas. America’s educational intuitions should pride themselves as space for critical thought, as an environment to think outside the box, as an instution to understand that the arts, science, and history (including our American heroes) are not one dimensional subjects with only one narrative, but subjects with differing intersectional layers. As a teacher myself, I try to create a space where students can critically challenge assumptions, a space where students can question history, science, math, a space to propose a new perspective on older models. I was taught in school that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was for their own good. I wish that someone had challenged that perspective.
This is not to say that Geisel did not have a change of heart later in life. Perhaps he was just keeping up with the times when racial intolerance became distasteful in America, nonetheless he did make that turn. If I did have more oversight I would have insisted that they include his turnaround. However, we trusted that the kids did adequate research and based the flyer in facts.
We do appreciate that you applaud Rockett for his civic mindedness, and we appreciate the education you are providing him. I apologize for the length of this email, but I thought it was important to convey.
The kids’ elementary school is a “fairly progressive” public school, said Steve, noting that the website boasts of its ethnic and cultural diversity and strong community ties. Notably, the school emphasizes its “Core Values,” which are respect, integrity and diversity.
“Schools should be a space for critical thought, especially in these new times,” Steve explained. “Rockett was first inspired to do something about Dr Seuss week because of these core values.”
Added Rockett, “Drawing racist cartoons are not respectful, do not show integrity and hurt people that are different than you. It does not show diversity because it is trying to gain anger against a person because of their differences.”
The elementary schooler said he wishes his teacher had allowed him to pass out the fliers, or used the incident as a teaching moment to share a lesson about this piece of history. The school did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
“I hope that people learn that Dr. Seuss was not perfect and that he drew racist cartoons,” said Rockett. “I also hope that people will learn that everyone has a dark side and that nobody, not even very famous people, are perfect.”
Zoe said she was “shocked,” “speechless” and “very curious” when she first learned about Dr. Seuss’ racist cartoons. She expected her classmates to have a similar reaction.
“I just wanted to inform them and meant no harm,” she said. “I didn’t want people to deeply hate him for what he did. After all, he regretted his cartoons.”
“In my opinion we didn’t violate any rules or core values,” she added. “Doing this gave me a big lesson: In life, you will always have to take risks, and there are always consequences for having a voice and doing what you believe in.”
H/T Angry Asian Man