Wavemaker Conversations 2021

Philip Nel: Following the Path of the Cat in the Hat

March 06, 2021 Michael Schulder
Wavemaker Conversations 2021
Philip Nel: Following the Path of the Cat in the Hat

Michael Schulder: Phil Nel, welcome to Wavemaker Conversations.

Philip Nel: Thanks for having me. 

Michael Schulder: The first thing I want to do, the reason I am doing this story is I, my wife and I,  sort of wandered into an art gallery years ago and our kids were very young, and this art gallery specialized in Doctor Seuss artwork. And we bought this piece, which I'm going to screen share with you, uh, because it really meant something to us. And we wanted to inculcate that love of reading, that curiosity. So I'm going to screen share this. Let's see, here we go. And you're go- you're going to be familiar with this, probably. Why don't you just look at this. This, you know, we- this is hanging outside- our kids are now grown, or at least the last one is still in high school for one more year. This is outside their bedroom. And as [00:04:00] soon as I saw that six of the books are going to be, you know, basically taken off the market, first thing I did is I went to this treasured image and I made sure it was not from one of those six books, and it's not. Look at this image. This is the Dr. Seuss the world loves. What do you, what do you see in this image? Talk us through it. 

Philip Nel: Well, it's from the book I Can Read With My Eyes Shut. And it's one of the many books after the first two Cat in the Hat books that features the cat as sort of narrator and guide more than as the anarchic figure, which he hints in those first two Cat books. It features, suits his sense of, uh, landscape and, um, his, what I call a kind of an energetic cartoon surrealism in his work. There's an energy to the line. There are curious [00:05:00] juxtapositions. He, he likes things that are, um, also a bit organic. He’s very influenced by the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, and so he, he sort of favored structures that echo the environment in ways that are, you know, that I think read to most of us as unconventional. That tree over there is a very Seussian tree. I think it, it reads more fantastical than it is if you actually go out to La Jolla, California, where he lived. The, the landscape there is more, is more Seussian than, um, perhaps you are aware if you are a Massachusetts native as I am, and as Seuss also was - he was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1904. Um, yeah. What else can we say about the image? I'm just, I'm riffing here, man. So-       

Michael Schulder: No, no this is- You’ve got it all. You've internalized it. And, you know, so, so I'm looking at that and now looking [00:06:00] at the more complicated history of Dr. Seuss, which comes through in your work and others' work, and, you know, basically what I've done is I've used that and I've used the message of that image to say “You know what? I'm going to go off on that curiosity driven inquiry to find out - do I need to reevaluate Dr. Seuss?” So, given what we've learned this week about the six books and the offensive imagery in those six books, help guide me in my re-evaluation. Do I have to throw Seuss out or can- is there a balance? 

Philip Nel: Yeah, there's a balance. You know, there is part of Seuss’ legacy that we can admire and part of Seuss’ legacy that we should view more critically and, if not throw out, at least put in a different section of the library, or not assign, or [00:07:00] read only with guidance and a good deal of context, if at all. So, yeah, I mean, Seuss- I think what confuses people about- well, one of the things that confuses people about the removal of these six books is that Seuss also did work like Horton Hears a Who and The Sneetches. When published in 1954, one reviewer described Horton Hears a Who as a rhyme lesson in protection of minorities and their rights. The Sneetches, from 1961, was inspired by Seuss’ opposition to antisemitism. And we can go beyond that. He also has a 1952 essay in which he pointedly critiques racist humor. So he is someone who is capable of being thoughtful about racism and aspires to oppose it in his works. But at the same period he's doing those works, he's also recycling racist caricature in other books. And the reason for that is that his visual imagination is steeped in a racist American [00:08:00] culture. And it's not easy to divorce a more noble or progressive political inclination from that. And most people think of racism as kind of an either-or: you're on team racism, or you're not. And Seuss is on team racism, but he's also not. He's just not aware of his own complicity in the system, and he's not aware of how that has shaped his way of thinking, which is true of… most of us? All of us? Certainly white people like myself. I sometimes call him the woke white guy who wasn't as woke as he thinks he was. I could say that of me too, you know? We're not aware of how the racist structures of our society have shaped us. And they often are invisible to us for that reason, because we don't- we don't see their effects on us. [00:09:00] We don't experience the pain of that as white people. And that's true for Seuss too, and so it's harder for him to learn that lesson. 

Michael Schulder: So, so let me ask you, because I, I just- I went up on a sort of a wild chase to find every Dr. Seuss book I had in the house. We don't have too many, he was not like a staple of our teaching. However, you mention Horton Hears a Who, that was in there. And this is a sort of a- is it an anti-racism, would you call it an anti-racism allegory or what, what is it about Horton

Philip Nel: Yeah, I mean, you could call it an allegory, and there's more than one way to read it. But you could read it as an allegory in which size is an arbitrary mark of difference for which the Who’s are sanctioned. You know, it's the reason that they are discriminated against and it's the reason they need an advocate and an ally in the character of Horton to speak up for them. So you could read it in that way. And it was published the year of Brown v. [00:10:00] Board of Education, and so I could see why a contemporary reviewer might put it in that, in that context. So-

Michael Schulder: And then, of course, and I was reading your piece today in Esquire.com, which I really enjoyed, because they really did sort of go behind the headline and, and gave you a chance to breathe with your observations. And, you know, last night, again, going through these books and I- I can show you. I've got about, well, let's see, five of the large hardcovers-

Philip Nel: Oh you have one of the ones that was removed, you have If I Ran the Zoo.  

Michael Schulder: You got it. And so it's like, “Oh, I didn't realize I had one with the offensive images.” And then I looked through and, you know, page one, no problem, page two, no problem. And I, I sort of- I was looking, I didn't see anything. I did start to notice that “Oh, there are some human characters here,” you know, and then they start to pop up. And then I see the black figures, the African figures and this, and I say “Well,” [00:11:00] and in fact, let me show it. I mean, you know what it is and you've, you've addressed it, but here it is. Tell me about that because, you know, I must have read this book to my kids maybe fifteen years ago, certainly a dozen years ago. And I'm not sure I sort of gave them the meta-voice to assess what- why that image wasn't right. And if I- if I were today, I would. 

Philip Nel: Yeah, well, the African Island of Yerka image in that book and the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant in that book are perhaps, you know, two of the most egregious in all of the six books. But yeah, it's racist caricature of two black men. They, in addition to the usual sorts of, um, racist caricature you might expect, they also have been drawn in a way to accentuate their resemblance to the bird that they're carrying, which further ties them to animals. And they really [00:12:00] come straight out of Seuss’ earlier cartoons from the late twenties and into the thirties where he's drawing racist caricatures of black people. So it's not- it's, it's not surprising that his visual imagination would create that sort of image in that book ‘cause he's done it before. As a teenager, he wrote for his high school a blackface minstrelsy show, which he also starred in, in blackface. So, you know, this is, this is very much part of American culture and part of Seuss’ culture and it affects the way that he sees people. It affects the way that he imagines people. And, yeah, that's not a book I would recommend reading with children of any race, you know? But your other point is you hadn't noticed, and I'm really glad you mentioned that, because of these six books- you know, I heard the news. And I, and before I even knew what the books were, I was like, okay, If I Ran The Zoo, it's[00:13:00] Scrambled Egg Super, definitely, and of course And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, and what are the other ones? Okay, Cat’s Quizzer, yeah, I can see that, because Seuss often uses racial or ethnic or national others as a source of humor, and I remembered that being in there. And then McElligot’s Pool, I thought “Okay, that's, that's one of those ones where it's about difference, and difference in animals and, and there's probably some fish or something that- oh goodness, there it is. It's the Eskimo fish, yeah.” And then there was On Beyond Zebra. I'm like “On Beyond Zebra? What's strange about On Beyond Zebra?” Because I remember On Beyond Zebra as this really kind of brilliant book that invites children to question language itself, you know? It reminds us that language is an arbitrary system. The main character invents an entirely new alphabet to “…describe the things that he could not see unless he went on beyond Z,” [00:14:00] which is wonderful, right? It's wonderful to remind children that this- the system of signs that they're being required to absorb and learn is not only difficult, but arbitrary and random. And, you know, if you sometimes feel frustrated with it, that's okay. But even, you know, a kind of a commentary on how language shapes what we see or don't see. So I thought “What could possibly be wrong with this book?” And so then I opened it up and I started looking and, as you did, “Well, he seemed kind of fantastic and, hmm, that's quite interesting. It's sort of fantastic.” But then there are a few pages in here which I looked at and I thought “Oh, right. Now I see, you know, it's the Middle Eastern character.” And that's “Yeah, okay. Got it.” But I honestly hadn't remembered that. I hadn't noticed it, until Doctors Enterprises pointed that out. And I've [00:15:00] actually written about racism in Seuss’ children's books and never touched on this. So if people like yourself or people watching or listening to this have thought “But I've read Dr.Seuss, he's no racist,” take a second look. Because I think it's one of the ways that we learn to accept things, one of the ways that we stop seeing things is we just become acculturated to it. We don't, we don't sort of think through. “Oh, well, sure-” But when I look at it now, I think “Right. I realize Seuss doesn't mean malice here, but part of what makes this funny or silly is the otherness of the Arab character, is the peculiarity of his costume and how Seuss has accentuated it fantastically.” So while I don't think he means malice, I don't think he's thinking about what it might mean to be a Middle Eastern person and see this, right? To have you be the punchline [00:16:00] and your strangeness be the punchline. So it's very easy to miss, but once you see it, you can't unsee it. And I hope that that is something that people will take away from this, and be willing to revisit the Seuss books and their understanding of what he means to them. 

Michael Schulder: And this is why, you know, maybe again, we, sometimes we- once it's out of the artist's hands, it's in us- it's our hands. And that line from that- you know, I looked up the page that I bought the illustration from: “Young cat, if you keep your eyes open enough, oh, the stuff you will learn.” And I really feel like just, just diving back into Seuss’ work and the arguments around it have taught me something. And you know what, they led me- I was actually looking to tap into some great black voices for this. And I [00:17:00] have in the, in the written piece, which is a companion to this that people will read, I actually reached out to a black professor at University of Pennsylvania who's known for her work on children's literature. You know who I’m talking about?                        

Philip Nel: Yeah. Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. She's fantastic, yeah. 

Michael Schulder: She’s fantastic, and I reached out to her and she turned me back to you. 

Philip Nel: Well, and, you know, and I should probably explain that, or maybe I don't need to, but I will. But there are a few excellent, well, there are many excellent scholars of color on this subject, but some of those have been directing queries to me because they're overwhelmed. Because to be a scholar of color, speaking about racism in the current climate is to put yourself at risk, is to raise your own anxiety level, is to be the subject of harassment via social media via your email, via phone messages, via threats. So one reason to have [00:18:00] me do this, in addition to being a Seuss scholar, is that I don't face those kinds of penalties. It's impossible to- well, first of all, the sorts of hate mail I get are lesser in number and in viciousness than the hate mail they get. And then, second of all, it is historically and culturally and linguistically impossible to dehumanize me in the way that you can dehumanize people of color, the entire structure of this society, its culture, its language and all that. There's just, there's no language. There's no N word for white people. So, while, you know, it's not great to get hate mail, none of the hate mail I get is capable of denying my basic humanity because I'm a straight white cisgendered guy. So, like, that's the, in some ways, the ideal person to do this, [00:19:00] because I don't pay the penalty that they would pay for it. And so that's, that's kind of why, that's why a lot of these have gone to me. There's a lot of excellent people who you could talk to and who would say smarter things than you're hearing from me and who would enrich this conversation in ways that I can’t. And I see you smiling, but I'm serious. I'm really, I'm not being modest. I just, I always, I also want to recognize why they would say “I can't do this right now.” 

Michael Schulder: Well, no, it's so interesting to me. And it's heartbreaking to hear you say that, because when I looked at professor Thomas's Twitter feed and I clicked follow her and it said, it gave you that notice that we're going to check you out before you let- these tweets are protected. To live in a way where your tweets have to be protected, protected, is really- it's a sign of the times and it's a heartbreaking sign. 

Philip Nel: It is a heartbreaking sign of the times. And, you know, I have trolls too, [00:20:00] but they don't rise to the level of viciousness or frequency that Ebony's trolls do. So, I mean, that's just, yeah. It's, it's heartbreaking. And that's, that’s why you got me, that’s why you got second best, so. 

Michael Schulder: Well, but, you know, 

Philip Nel: Well, no, I mean, look,-

Michael Schulder: I actually reached out to you at the same time, because as I'm saying in my written piece, I mean, you are, you are the go-to guy-

Philip Nel: Sure.

Michael Schulder:  -on Dr. Seuss, the go-to person. And so I want to just ask you a couple more questions. First of all, how did you get into this? I mean, you don't just wake up one day and become the Seuss expert, you have had to have been immersed. And yet, I've looked into your work, I saw some of your 700 level graduate classes at Kansas State University. I'm saying if I was living in Kansas, I'd be there. And they cover a wide range of children's literature. But you [00:21:00] sunk in to the Seuss work. Tell me about your evolution on that. 

Philip Nel: Well, I think like many people, or certainly many people who grew up in the U.S., Canada, Australia or New Zealand, which is where Seuss is most popular, I grew up on Seuss. You know, the first book that I could read by myself was Green Eggs and Ham. And that was also the first book that I re-read because I so enjoyed it when I got to the end, I read it again. So Seuss is one of the reasons that I learned to read, but also one of the reasons I continued, because he taught me, as he taught many children, that reading is fun. And, you know, when I got a PhD in English, I happened to write a bit about him and a chapter of the dissertation, which later became a book.

Michael Schulder: Oh wait a sec, wait a second. You jumped through to that PhD in English. So you were, and by the way, did you have a lot of books in your house?

Philip Nel: Oh, yes, yes. And, you know, [00:22:00] credit to a mother who read to me and who took us to the library, you know, when we checked out these books, and credit to public television, to Sesame Street, to The Electric Company to Mr.Rogers’ Neighborhood, to all of them, the wonderful shows of my childhood, which nurtured that love of learning and of reading. So yeah, no I, um, I don't know how long form an interview you want. [laughs] So I, I kind of-

Michael Schulder: I never know either. And really my, my sort of the way I approach it, I do like to really introduce people in a deeper way. But moving to the PhD, so you, you went to college and what made you decide? Because, you know, I can't imagine going for a PhD, but boy, you really have to love something for a PhD and make a mark on a subject that nobody else has made. So take me now back to the PhD. 

Philip Nel: Okay. Well, honestly, I pursued a PhD in [00:23:00] English because I was a double major in English and Psychology and decided of those two fields I was more suited to English than Psychology. And so I applied to graduate schools in English. I- it was really just out of love for the subject. I never thought I'd make a mark on anything, really. I was interested and I followed where my curiosity led and, you know, see also the Dr. Seuss that you cited earlier, right, where it's kind of about following your ideas where they lead. So that's really- I didn't, I cannot claim to have any grand plan. I cannot claim to have understood the ramifications of my decision, um, or thought it through at all, honestly. I mean, so I would like to be able to say I pursued a PhD because I knew that one day I would, uh, you know, be a scholar on Seuss and racism in children's literature, but I had no idea.

Michael Schulder: And so now looking at the trajectory, how many years have passed from that PhD to now? [00:24:00] And you've already sort of told us some of what you have learned, even as recently as this past week, when this announcement was made, that you didn't know then, but give me a sense of your- how long a trajectory has this been and what do you know now that you didn't know then?

Philip Nel: That's a good question, and it's been 24 years. I got the PhD in 1997. And I, I had long been aware of racism and Seuss in part because of the political cartoons from the second World War, some of which are actively against discrimination. They- they're critical of Jim Crow, hi- and they're critical of racist hiring practices, and they do not caricature African-Americans. But they are vicious in their caricatures of Japanese Americans and the Japanese. And so that was, that was for me an extremely visible example of Seuss’ racism. And then if you go back into his earlier cartoons, you see even more of that. So I've long been aware of Seuss’ racism.  [00:25:00] But the way I came to understand it was that he evolved, was that he changed over time, that he learned the error of his ways. And the way that I would have justified that to myself would have been to look at the children's books like, um, Horton Hears a Who, Like The Sneetches, and sort of say “Well, you know, here is someone who understood. Here is someone who had kind of a, a gradual awakening and who tried to right some of the wrongs of his earlier work. I mean, one way to read Horton Hears a Who, one way that it has been read, um, since it is dedicated to a Kyoto University professor he met on an [inaudible] trip to Japan, as a kind of atonement, you know, as a kind of recognition of the humanity of people who he ambitiously caricatured. I would revise that now. I would not, I would not make that claim as I have in Dr. Seuss: An American Icon, an [00:26:00] earlier work of mine. I think it's partially true. I think he does learn. I think he was capable of change, but not of the degree to which I had give him- given him credit. So I think I was wrong. And I would also call your listeners and viewers attention to, um, Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephen’s article, “The Cat Is Out Of The Bag,” which is, um, it published in an open source journal and you can read for free and I've linked to it from my blog, and, I mean, you can just find it. They’re the people behind The Conscious Kid, um, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and follow them, they're worth following. But, I mean, you know, they, they rightly point that out in that article, which also draws on the essay that became, you know, the title chapter of this book, the 2014 essay that became the title chapter of this book. So, you know, they're, they're not- they're acknowledging the range of stuff. I don't mean to sort of say, [00:27:00] you know, they were critical of me. They were correctly critical of me. And they're also drawing on, on better work that I've done too. So yeah, it's been an evolution and I have not always been aware of the degree to which Seuss’ imagination was steeped in the racist culture that he in some ways tried to oppose. So that's why that's a good question. And it's, and it's important, I think, for people to, to understand that. You, you know, you can be wrong. You can misunderstand that- honestly, you know, a mark of expertise is recognizing the limits of your knowledge is understanding how little you actually know. And I really think that is, that is, that is the, um, that is the mark of an educated person, you know? Is someone who recognizes this tiny little postage stamp that they stand on amidst this, this vast, [00:28:00] vast, vast landscape. And, and that's true of me, and that's true of all of us, whether we recognize it or not. And I am constantly learning, constantly trying to get better. Um, I wrote Was The Cat In The Hat Black? because I was not satisfied with the answer that I had provided earlier. That's part of, that's part of what motivated it. I thought there's something that's not quite right here. And I never let go of that doubt, I kept listening to it and then I came back to it. So…

Michael Schulder: Do me a favor. Hold that book up again.

Philip Nel: Oh yeah. So this is, uh, Was The Cat In The Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books. 

Michael Schulder And when did you write that?

Philip Nel:  This was published in 2017. The title essay, or I should say title chapter, comes from 2014. And just so that I don't mislead anybody, the first chapter is on Seuss, the rest of the chapters are on the subtitle, right? So that's, that's a way into the question, but it's not, it isn't all about Seuss, so no false advertising here.

Michael Schulder: Right. [00:29:00] But everybody is going to want to know, was the cat in the hat black?

Philip Nel: Right. Well, I, I pose that as a question and I, and I sincerely mean it as a question, because the cat in the hat has a complicated racial legacy. On the one hand, he is inspired by blackface minstrelsy, which is not unusual given, as I said before, Seuss’ own participation in minstrelsy, given that many popular characters in American culture draw on blackface minstrelsy: Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. Nick Salmon has an entire book on animation, early animation and how that uses blackface minstrelsy. So, that Seuss’ own imagination would give the white gloves, the crazy hat, the ridiculous neckwear and the, you know, the kind of pretender-to-knowledge character that the cat has. He sort of claims he understands bourgeoise respectability and does not, right? That he would draw on that [00:30:00] for the cat is not surprising, but also you probably haven't noticed it because that particular image is so baked into the culture. So that's part of it. The other part of it is that the cat is also inspired by crazy cat, the ambiguous, ambiguously gendered, um, creation of biracial cartoonist George Herrmann. And he's also inspired by Mrs. Annie Williams, who from 1944 to 1984 was the elevator operator at Houghton Mifflin’s office in Boston. And she had, um, uh, a secret smile and she wore white gloves. So, so, so the cat is interesting. He is not the egregious racial caricature of the African Island of Yerka, but nor is he without elements of caricature. He's somewhere [00:31:00] in between. And so that's why he's the title of the book. Because there’s response- you were about to ask a question. So I'm, I'm just, I'm monologuing here, and I don’t mean-

Michael Schulder: No, no, I'm just, I'm, you know what? I'm thinking out loud in my head and I'm thinking “My God, that cat who's on that illustration that hangs outside my kid's room.” There was no obvious racial implication there. But now that I know it, now I can't unsee that.

Philip Nel: Right, sorry. 

Michael Schulder: And I sorta do wanna unsee it. 

Philip Nel: Yeah, I know, another childhood ruined, another adulthood ruined. [Michael laughs] And I, and I say that partially in jest, because I think that people who are angry about these conversations feel that we are ruining their childhoods. But I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you. 

Michael Schulder: Well, no, no, I, you know, but as an artist and he was an artist, you look around for inspiration and it triggers things and whatever it triggered with him. If we didn't know the [00:32:00] backstory you just told us it's also okay because boy, that cat. I mean, he's a cool cat and, and, and I have fun watching him as every kid does, so that doesn't spoil anything along those lines. It's just fascinating to me. It's fascinating. Of course. I'm going to look up a picture of that elevator operator now. 

Philip Nel: Well, actually this has been one of the most fascinating things about this week is I'd never seen a photograph of her before. But a blogger emailed me this week and sent me a photograph. There's a profile of her in the Boston Globe from about 1983, which includes a photograph. And I have to say I was, I was really moved to see that because I'm, I'm the person who made the connection with her name, and the cat. So, so it's been part of, it was a discovery that I credit in part to the biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel by Judith Neil Morgan and in part to something Anita Silvey, who is a children's literature scholar, used to [00:33:00] work at Houghton Mifflin told me, like, I, I sort of made that connection. And so I knew the name. I knew she was African-American, the description, but never seen her. And seeing that photograph just knocked me over. I mean, I'm still thinking about it. 

Michael Schulder: What is it about it, aside from the fact that she came to life, but what do you notice in that picture based on your work? 

Philip Nel: Well, she's not wearing white gloves in the picture, but it's also from the eighties and not from the fifties, which is when Seuss would’ve seen her so the uniform may have changed. I think what moves me is thinking about her story. Well, I, I have learned that, that she grew up in the South, um, came up to, um, to Massachusetts, got this job as an elevator operator and was extremely loved by everybody who worked at Houghton Mifflin. And she put her kids through college on that job, all four kids through college on that job. And, um, I wonder [00:37:00] what she would think, what her kids would think, because she never knew about the fact that she inspired one of the most iconic and famous characters in all of children’s literature. But then I also wonder what would they think knowing that another inspiration was blackface minstrelsy, that it's Annie Williams, a woman loved revered by those Houghton Mifflin from all I can read, all I've read, but then it's also conjoined with these images of minstrelsy. And, uh, I don't, I don't know how to respond to that emotionally. I don't know how to respond to that emotionally. I, I feel in some way that the cat is, is abusing her is, is taking her name in vain. And I find that painful, but then I also think “Well, you know, the cat also is not a caricature in the way [00:38:00] that Seuss's African Island of Yerka characters are caricatures.” And so I, I just don't, I don't know how to process it, to be honest. And that's why it sticks with me, um, which is telling, because when things upset me and I can't quite figure them out, that tends to be when I write about them, tends to be when I go further into them, because I don't quite know. I don't. I don't. Yeah. It's- I don't know what to, I don't know how to process it. I'm still processing it. I've been thinking about it ever since I saw the photo and I've been learning more about it from Houghton Mifflin employees, ‘cause I started reaching out to people ever since I saw the photos. 

Michael Schulder: As you process it, boy, what a universally interesting, transparent observation that is. And I'm thinking, you know, well, you know, sometimes I need help processing stuff and I can't do it alone, so I go find another voice. That's one of the reasons I, I went to you for this, and I'm thinking “Boy, you know, who might be able to help you processes this?” because Annie Williams is part of a story, and I've just called up the book, Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth Of Other Suns, the Epic story of America's great migration. Annie Williams sort of is part of that great migration as you just described it. And I was-

Philip Nel: Yeah, there's a lot of- that’s a good suggestion. I didn't mean to cut you off. Sorry, go [00:40:00] ahead. 

Michael Schulder: No, no. 

Philip Nel: No, I mean, I've reached out to, actually, to- I shared the photo with, um, professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, who we spoke of earlier and Sarah Park Dahlin who is one of the co-editors of the journal in which The Cat is Out of the Bag appeared, the essay by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens appeared, because I was just touched and moved by it. And I thought they'd be fascinated to see it too. So, so yeah, it's been a busy week and I also haven't had time to process it, but it is, um, yeah, it's, it's, it's interesting and it, and it really, um, oops, excuse me. Just been drinking coffee. Uh, it also calls up the really, well, the complexities of blackface minstrelsy too, which we haven't addressed. Eric Lott has a whole book on this called Love and Theft, which Bob Dylan used for the album of that title, by the way. But to oversimplify his book, um, minstrelsy is love and [00:41:00] theft. It is on the one hand, on the one hand it derives from an affection for Black culture and an attempt to imitate it. On the other hand it's theft, it's stealing and, you know, it's grotesque and it dehumanizes.

Michael Schulder: Listen, you've [00:42:00] been so generous with your time. I want to finish up with two questions if you don't mind.

Philip Nel: Uh, sure. 

Michael Schulder: Because this, um, this path led me to that study, actually, that you told me about of the- it's a husband and wife team, right? Japanese American woman and the one that-

Philip Nel: Oh yes, yes. They are a husband and wife team. To the best of my knowledge, they are husband and wife team. 

Michael Schulder: I read that, but I read, I read their book and I read the critique of you. And it's so interesting to hear you sort of accept the critique. 

Philip Nel: Well, yeah. 

Michael Schulder: But, but one of the key points in that, that I really found fascinating is I, in fact, I'm highlighting it in the written piece. I'm doing only two- well, they identified - I mean, who would have taken the time? - 2,240 human characters in Dr.Seuss’ body of work, only 45 were people of color, only two of those of African descent - bad characterizations. Which led me to put in a whole different perspective, the piece this week in the New York Times by [00:43:00] Charles Blow. Did you see that one? 

Philip Nel: I have not yet seen that. I'll take a look. I love Charles Blow's work and I read-

Michael Schulder: I do too, and he's here in Atlanta now, and I’ve got to meet him ‘cause I I'm in- based in Atlanta, but, but you know, he wrote a piece on the Dr. Seuss controversy where he only referred to Dr. Seuss once at the very end, because it was really an opportunity to address this issue. He says, “As a child, I was led to believe blackness was inferior,” and went on to talk about how, you know, “we either appeared in a negative light or not at all.” And then through your Twitter feed and the U Penn professor's Twitter feed, I discovered a writer that other people have discovered Michael Harriet. 

Philip Nel: Yeah, Michael Harriet had a great thread this week on- 

Michael Schulder: And I am posting, I am posting a lot of that thread. I think it's the most perspective changing thing I've come across.  And I'll just to- well, you saw it. He weaves the [00:44:00] story of how his mother homeschooled him and his sisters to keep them insulated from this broader white dominated culture that didn't give expression or opportunities for black kids to read it and be proud of themselves, what an incredible story. So, but I will tell you to, to give away the punchline of my written piece, for you, for your purposes, and for this last question, actually, second to last question, because I see there's a sign over your left shoulder, which I want to ask you about, but, but, um, your families- 

Philip Nel: Oh yeah. That's, that's from the, um, protest against the children in cages, so, okay. 

Michael Schulder: Well that, that won't be so relevant to this. But, uh, so then the very last question: this journey from that initial Seuss illustration that is hanging outside of our kid's bedroom, in that spirit, led me to Michael Harriet and this perspective changing role that his mother played to develop the [00:45:00] self confidence in him. And I thought you know, something? Maybe I take that, “Oh, the stuff you will learn” mentality- I don't, I'm not going to take that off my wall, it's as pure and beautiful as it ever was to me, but sometimes you have to pair things. And I just wonder, you, given your immersion in, in the broader landscape of children's literature, if you had to recommend something from the world of children's literature to pair and put alongside and frame next to what I have hanging outside my children's bedroom, what would you recommend? 

Philip Nel: Boy, there's a long list and I would send you to The Conscious Kid for an even, even longer one. I'm actually going to go into the bookshelves right behind me, because that's the most succinct way to do this. Not all of my books are here because I have a campus office, which I used to go to about a year ago. Um, [00:46:00] but, I mean, I would, I would recommend books... and I think it's back here. Yeah. So, I mean, anything illustrated by Kadir Nelson is fantastic. This is the, The Undefeated, um, uh, an award-winning book of his. He has a wonderful book, uh, about the Negro leagues, uh, uh, called We Are The Ship, which is fantastic. Um, he, he is, uh, I mean, in terms of images, um, and, and, and images that, that affirm the humanity of people of color, you can't really get a lot better than him, at least in contemporary children’s literature. I mean, I would also. Be remiss if I didn't address some of the other great African-American contemporary African-American writers for children, um, you know, people like Christian Robinson who does wonderful illustrations, and illustrations that are really, you would recognize as kind of a classic style, right? They look to you like maybe they were done in 1960, they weren't. And partly, you know, they weren't because there are children of color in these books. [00:47:00] But the style recalls that. I was so happy, since indigenous people were one of the groups caricatured in Seuss, I was really so happy to see this book win an award, um, because it's a great book. You know, I think people sometimes think about diverse children's literature as, as being important because they represent, you know? Because they, they show the humanity of under-represented groups, but this- and that's also true of the Kadir Nelson stuff I showed and the Chris Robinson stuff, I showed you, this is a great story. Like, this would be a great story, you know, even if it weren't about, and please don't let this undersell it, but, you know, um, the, the connection between, uh, indigenous people and the land and, and, and what that means, uh, it's really, it's a lovely book. And this was a big award winner last year, and I could keep going, but I won't, because you probably have limited time. I just want to say that I want to kind of end by [00:48:00] saying there's lots of good children’s literature out there. You don't have to read Dr. Seuss at all. You know, look for diverse books, broaden your own mind, broaden your own perspective, read something that was unfamiliar to you as a child, something you didn't encounter as a child, something that as a child, maybe you only saw in Ezra Jack Keats’  The Snowy Day, which for me was the book I read as a child. That was the only book that I read that featured a black child and it's by a white author, by the way. But it was also a very important book in terms of bringing, um, children of color into, into mainstream children's books. But there are many more of those today – center those. Center those, everybody should center those. Not, not just people who are represented in the books. Everyone should center those because in so doing, you will learn. And you will shift your perspective and you will be able to see anew, because you are taking on the [00:49:00] perspective of not the dominant culture, you know? If you're a white person to challenge you in that way. And then if you are, you know, to cite the Michael Harriet thread that you, you mentioned earlier, you know, if you're, African-American say, or if you're Asian American, you know, to see yourself affirmed, respected, important, especially, especially as a child, is life-changing. It tells you you matter to borrow the title of Christian Robinson's book. It tells you you matter, and every child needs to know you matter.

Michael Schulder: Professor Phil Nel, this was an incredible journey made possible by The Cat In The Hat who laid the path that led to your door and then you were able in your bookshelves there to give us a new center to explore. 

[00:50:00] Philip Nel: Yeah. And that's a nice way to put it: shift the center. What happens when you put diverse books at the center? How do you, how does it change the way you see?

Michael Schulder: Phil Nel, thank you so much.