Dr. Seuss and Racial Passing

Dr. Seuss is one of the most beloved children’s authors in America. He also has a rather mixed record on issues of race and diversity. As a young man, Dr. Seuss wrote and drew for various magazines and college publications. In these, Seuss portrayed Africans and Asians in stereotypical fashion. During World War II, Seuss drew some political cartoons which sympathized with African-Americans and Jewish people and others that accused Japanese-Americans of perpetrating acts of sabotage.

Dr. Seuss's less stellar diversity moments.  Taken from Richard Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War (NY: Norton, 1999).

One of Dr. Seuss’s less stellar diversity moments. Taken from Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War (NY: Norton, 1999).

After the war, Seuss’s attitudes changed. These changes in attitude came about, in part, because of his writing commissions. He visited Japan on assignment for Life magazine, and saw the devastation caused by the atomic bombs his country dropped. His writing for children also began to take off. Both of these things resulted in a measurable difference in his public attitudes toward racism. Phil Nel points out that Seuss wrote Horton Hears a Who directly after he returned from Japan in1953. The book argues that all people matter “no matter how small”. Many people have also pointed to Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an allegory of Fascism. Writing for children gave Seuss a sense of responsibility about his publications (even to the extent of causing him to revise earlier books for children to be more culturally sensitive).

This cultural sensitivity continued when Dr. Seuss published The Sneetches in 1961. Many critics take Seuss at his word when he says that he wrote The Sneetches about anti-Semitism. Although Philip Nel adds, almost as an afterthought, that “the book also works as an anti-racism fable” (Dr. Seuss: American Icon New York: Continuum, 59), it is surprising that the critics have not taken this possibility more seriously. Seuss may have been influenced in his anti-racism by his World War II experiences, but he could not have been ignorant of events occurring in his own country in the late 1950s. The Civil Rights movement was well underway, and the nation as a whole was gripped with the implications of laws that would enforce equality between whites and African-Americans. Lines in The Sneetches such as, “When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,/ Could a Plain Belly get in the game . . . ? Not at all” echo the official and unofficial rules of a still very segregated United States.

Starless Sneetches need not apply.

More than that, The Sneetches taps into one of the fears that segregationists held, and which was represented as an ever-present danger in the Northern as well as the Southern states: the fear of “passing.” In a country where “one drop of African blood” made a person black and not white, worries about being able to place people in the racial hierarchy if they could “pass” for white emerged through various forms of cultural production. Mark Twain, Charles Chestnutt, and Nella Larsen all wrote novels about African-Americans passing for white. The 1930s musical “Showboat,” twice made into a film (in the 1930s and the 1950s), has a tragic plot involving passing. Another film, based on a Fannie Hurst novel, was made twice by Hollywood (again in the 1930s and the 1950s). “Imitation of Life,” in its second incarnation became the fourth-most successful movie of 1959—just two years before The Sneetches was published.

Wait–are there African-Americans in this movie? Oh, yes, they’re way down in the corner . . .

“Imitation of Life” (in its 1959 version, which was less faithful to the book than the 1934 version starring Claudette Colbert) concerned two women, one white (played by Lana Turner in increasingly glamorous costumes) and one African-American (played by Juanita Moore, wearing either maid’s garb or middle-aged mom clothes throughout) and their daughters, the insufferably perky Sandra Dee as Turner’s daughter and Susan Kohner as Moore’s. Kohner’s character is light-skinned enough to pass for white (Kohner herself was of Mexican and Jewish descent, not African-American; so she was passing for African-American passing for white), and she does so with a vengeance, denying her color and even her mother (she tells people that Moore is her maid, or her “mammy”). The white characters in the film are somewhat befuddled by this, claiming that Kohner’s color “doesn’t matter” and that they “love her anyway”—only reinforcing the notion that color does matter, if they have to love her in spite of it. The film ends tragically, of course, with the death of Moore’s character and the remorse of Kohner’s.

I have no evidence whether or not Dr. Seuss ever saw “Imitation of Life” but certainly The Sneetches has remarkably similar themes. Before Kohner’s character leaves to become a dancer in Hollywood, she says of her mother, “She can’t help her color—but I can. And I will!” The Sneetches without stars are told that they can have stars “for three dollars each” and they do not hesitate to take Sylvester McMonkey McBean up on his offer. Newly be-starred, these “improved” Sneetches tell the other Sneetches, “We’re exactly like you! You can’t tell us apart./ We’re all just the same, now, you snooty old smarties!/ And now we can go to your frankfurter parties.” These Sneetches were not born star-bellied—but now they can pass for such.

A Star-Belly Sneetch's worst fear: that we might not be able to tell "them" from "us".

A Star-Belly Sneetch’s worst fear: that we might not be able to tell “them” from “us”.

The picture that accompanies this text has very happy Sneetches. When Moore, in “Imitation of Life” asks her daughter if she is happy, Kohner responds, “I’m somebody else. I’m white—white—white! Does that answer your question?” Seuss takes the idea of passing and puts it on a grand scale, amplifying both the joy of those passing and the fear of those deemed racially superior. Kohner’s character must lose her mother before she can gain self-love. The Sneetches lose all their money before deciding that “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beach.”  Seuss’s book, unlike “Imitation of Life,” can have a happy(ish) ending because the Sneetches have only a single, surface-level difference; “race” is removable.  Hollywood no longer makes movies about “passing,” and it would be nice to think the idea of “racial purity” may be passing out of the American vocabulary as it did out of the Sneetch vocabulary.  Unfortunately, racism is not so easily erased–even by Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

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5 thoughts on “Dr. Seuss and Racial Passing

  1. Heather

    Imitation of Life was one of my favourite childhood films and i was an adult before i realised there was another plot with Lana Turner and Sanda Dee as the passing story was so poignant. Have you ever read the book One Drop by Bliss Broyard about her father who confessed on his deathbed that he was actually mixed race and he and his family had been passing for white since he was about seven years old? Fascinating read.

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  2. Heather

    Another interesting book that features passing as part of the plot is Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. It has overtones of Snow White and other fairy tales elements.

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  3. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » Dr. Seuss and Racial Passing

  4. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » More than that, The Sneetches taps into one of the fears that segregationists held, and which was represented as an ever-present danger in the Northern as well as the Southern states:

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