By now, plenty of people have learned of the removal by their publisher, Penguin Random House, of a half-dozen books by the legendary children’s author Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), including such beloved classics as If I Ran the Zoo (the one I most enjoyed reading to my daughters several decades ago, and more recently to my grandkids), on the grounds that they contain unfortunate racial or ethnic “stereotypes.” Most likely, this refers, in the case of the zoo book, to some cartoons of sub-Saharan African natives, dressed appropriately for the climate, who capture the imaginary, hilariously named beasts for young Gerald McGrew’s wished-for bestiary. But the book also describes Asian characters as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell,” as noted in a 2019 paper on Geisel’s work published in the journal Research on Diversity in Youth Literature. And another famed, now-banned classic, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, depicting a sudden parade of surprises in a humdrum American town, contains an illustration of an East Asian man holding chopsticks and a bowl of rice, labeling him “A Chinese man who eats with sticks.” (The horror!)
To rub in the rejection, the publisher chose to cease publishing the books on what would have been the author’s 117th birthday, March 2, long celebrated as Read Across America Day. (Apparently having been tipped off, President Biden omitted Seuss’s name from the annual White House proclamation marking the event.) And a spokesman for Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE), which supervises publication of the shrinking Seuss oeuvre for Penguin Random House, explained to a New York Post reporter that more cancellations may be on the way, since DSE “is committed to identifying how they can make meaningful and lasting change to their catalog and entire portfolio.” (And you thought that publishers existed to publish books!)
But the natives, or rather their self-appointed spokesmen, are getting even more restless these days. I just learned from my bright and enthusiastic third-grade granddaughter, who attends a well-run and well-regarded Jewish day school in a major metropolitan area, that we should never call the Iroquois Indians, about whom she is learning in her social studies class, by that name. The reason is that the name “Iroquois” is a French variant on a term for “snake” that was given these people by the rival Huron tribe.So, calling them the term by which they’ve been known, to other tribes, to the British and French colonists, and to historians for centuries is a racist, or at least tribalist, insult! Instead, her teacher explained, the members of the group of five or six tribes formerly known as the Iroquois Confederacy, who in the 17th and 18th centuries played a major role in the struggle between the British and French for dominance in North America, must henceforth be designated only by their reported self-chosen cognomen “Haudenosaunee” (“People of the Longhouse”). (Good thing my granddaughter’s tongue is more nimble than mine. The word sounds harder to pronounce than an excerpt from Dr. Seuss’s volume of tongue-twisters, also beloved in our family, Oh Say Can You Say.)
Whoops! Shouldn’t have used that word “colonists” either. The regional newspaper in the Central Massachusetts city where I live just highlighted the campaign of a high school girl in a prosperous suburb, along with several of her friends, to change the name of her school’s team mascot from the “Colonials.” The students are members of a “startup group” formed last spring called “Enough Is Enough,” which reportedly has already grown to 20 chapters across the country and has “fighting racism among its chief goals.” The petition that the young lady in question (an accomplished student, musician, and past member of school sports teams, we are told) has submitted to her town’s school committee links the term Colonials “with white dominance, slavery, servitude, and destruction of indigenous populations.” Therefore, it must go.
In Massachusetts, we (used to) take our history seriously, and with pride. As much as the petitioning students may regret it, New England and the other East Coast states were settled by colonists. We call our forebears “colonials” because, from 1620 to 1776, we were colonists subject to the British crown—though during that period, we developed self-governing institutions, applauded by Alexis de Tocqueville in the second chapter of Democracy in America, that were unparalleled in history. These institutions paved the way for our achievement of full independence and a successful regime of liberty under law that would welcome hundreds of millions of settlers, immigrants, and refugees (no longer “colonists”) from around the world, continuing to this day. Slavery was never widespread in New England, even though Boston merchants participated in the trade. But what does any of that have to do with colonialism? (And does the student, who is white, regret that her ancestors migrated to this country to enjoy the blessings of liberty and share them with their descendants, including her?)
But making apologies for our past has become quite the fashion up here for several decades. In 1989, the logo for the Massachusetts Turnpike, which used to feature a pilgrim’s hat with an arrow through it, was altered to remove the arrow. (It might have given visitors the impression that the indigenous inhabitants had not always been as welcoming as those who greeted the Pilgrims.)
The cancel culture made further advances in New England this past fall. First, the trustees of Plimoth Plantation, the living-history museum that has explained the Pilgrim settlement to schoolchildren and tourists since 1947, announced a change in the institution’s name to “Plimoth Patuxet” (the latter term being the Wampanoag name for the location) as a way of signifying, in effect, that we should think of the spot as still really belonging to the “Native Americans” who previously inhabited it. And in a referendum on November 3, voters in adjacent Rhode Island changed their state’s name from its official historic one, “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” to just plain “Rhode Island,” because some people thought the term “plantations” had a ring of Southern slavery to it, rather than just signifying (as it did) “settlements.”
Alas, even in today’s liberal Massachusetts, not all the protesting students’ neighbors have been as tolerant as the youngsters thought they had a right to expect. According to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, which ran this story, the lead anti-mascot protester has been the target of “vicious” social media postings, including one recommending that, based on her principles, she should change her first name, “Louisa,” since in French it signifies “vicious warrior,” and thus could be perceived as advocating violence. So “painful” did such insults become that the girl and her father (she told the reporter) rented an RV around Thanksgiving “just to get out of town.” “Thankfully,” the Telegram reports, “things have since quieted down.” But the School Committee has not yet taken action on the girl’s petition, and she laments that “even after so many months,” the criticisms she receives are “still what keeps me up at nights.”
Still, however struck we may be at the apparent overreaction of Louisa, and perhaps of her protesting female cohorts, to jibes they might reasonably have expected to receive, and however nonsensical the grounds of their attempt to rewrite history, in another sense they are, in their way, serving as perpetuators of our state’s history. Over three centuries ago, another group of young women in Massachusetts sought to blot out the Devil. Did the current protestors’ high school curriculum cover the Salem Witch Trials?
But let me end on a positive word of advice to parents who are fortunate to possess a large Dr. Seuss library: don’t emulate my Mom, who threw away my baseball cards when I left home. Someday, those soon-to-be-rare books may cover a good deal of your kids’ college tuition!