Review:: Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Phillip Nel

Racism is resilient, duplicitous, and endlessly adaptable, so it is no surprise that America is again in a period of civil rights activism. A significant reason racism endures is because it is structural: it’s embedded in culture and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides-and thus perhaps the best place to oppose it-is books for young people. All of that is explored in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? presents five serious critiques of the history and current state of children’s literature tempestuous relationship with both implicit and explicit forms of racism. The book fearlessly examines topics both vivid -such as The Cat in the Hat‘s roots in blackface minstrelsy- and more opaque, like how the children’s book industry can perpetuate structural racism via whitewashed covers even while making efforts to increase diversity. Rooted in research yet written with a lively, crackling touch, Nel delves into years of literary criticism and recent sociological data in order to show a better way forward. Though much of what is proposed here could be endlessly argued, the knowledge that what we learn in childhood imparts both subtle and explicit lessons about whose lives matter is not debatable. The text concludes with a short and stark proposal of actions everyone-reader, author, publisher, scholar, citizen- can take to fight the biases and prejudices that infect children’s literature. While Was the Cat in the Hat Black? does not assume it has all the answers to such a deeply systemic problem, its audacity should stimulate discussion and activism. (via Goodreads)

I received an eARC from Edelweiss, courtesy of the publisher, Oxford University Press, in exchange for an honest review.

This book is broken into five chapters:

  1. The Strange Career of the Cat in the Hat; or, Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination
  2. How to Read Uncomfortably: Racism, Affect and Classic Children’s Books
  3. Whiteness, Nostalgia, and Fantastic Flying Books: William Joyce’s Racial Erasure vs Hurricane Katrina
  4. Don’t Judge a Book By Its Color: The Destructive Fantasy of Whitewashing (and Vice-Versa)
  5. Childhoods ‘Outside the Boundaries of Imagination’: Genre is the New Jim Crow

This focuses a lot on anti-black racism in the publishing industry, due to African American children’s literature being the largest body of work, but it does draw from Native American, Latinx and Asian American racism as well. The Fiyah Lit Magazine discussed anti-black racism in the industry in this article as well as the BlackSpecFic report. I highly recommend reading both of those.

“The problem of trying to enforce innocence is that, as they grow up, children gain experience and knowledge. Some of these experiences will hurt; some of that knowledge will make them sad. If we exclude troubling literary works from the discussion, then children will face pain, bigotry and sorrow on their own.”

My favorite chapter of this book was the second one, because it’s so important to well-meaning white folks like myself. It discussed the disparity that shows up so often in both fiction and reality – white kids (and adults) are treated as angelic, tender creatures, while kids of color get treated as adults at really young ages. White kids get to be kids – they get to throw tantrums in public, they get the benefit of the doubt. Kids of color get arrested, or beaten up because they are having a bad day, or even because they looked at an official wrong. It’s horrific. This article by The Establishment talks about it as well, if you want a basic primer on this as well.

I also really loved the fourth chapter on whitewashing. This quote really sums it up for me.

Deciding to whitewash a book cover on the unproven assumption that White people buy more books may seem a sound business decision, but it is a morally suspicious one. What children see on the covers of their books tells them who matters, and who does not.

This book is dense and academic, but it’s also incredibly interesting. I do think that it could have been explored differently by an author of color, and I would love to read more on this, so I’d love recommendations by authors of color!

I think this should be read by everyone who wants to go into publishing. I highly recommend taking your time with Was the Cat in the Hat Black. There is so much in it that I guarantee you will learn something from it.

Excited Fox

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