From erasure to recategorizing: What we should do with Dr. Seuss books

In our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove.

Monica Eileen Patterson, Carleton University

Was the decision to stop publishing six obscure Dr. Seuss titles containing racist imagery and messaging an erasure of history?

Media coverage of the controversy has presented it as an example of censorship, an attack on free speech and yet another example of cancel culture. These reactions are rooted in both a lack of awareness of the challenges and realities of maintaining collections and a false understanding of history.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is a children’s entertainment company that functions as both a business and a family estate dedicated to preserving and promoting Theodor Seuss Geisel’s legacy. After consulting with educators and other experts, they decided to halt publication of six books because, in their words, they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” An examination of many of the images and text in question confirmed the use of racist tropes in depicting Asian and Black characters.

This decision reflects norms in publishing, archiving and collecting.

Making space for new materials

Publishing companies regularly review their titles and sales to determine and reassess print runs. This is a necessary part of making space for new publications, and maintaining desirable profit margins.

In this context, thinking about museums and archives is helpful.

For cultural institutions tasked with collecting, preserving, ordering and exhibiting, utility is derived from selectivity: not everything can be saved, or it would prove so overwhelming as to render everything inaccessible. That is why galleries, libraries, archives and museums don’t only collect new materials, but also regularly remove them.

The role of curating is key: as both a form of care taking and as a selection process that chooses specific works. Exhibits can serve a variety of roles: they can educate, inspire, call to action, memorialize, entertain. And as new works are being produced at unprecedented rates, space must be made for new material.

A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture
A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture in London, U.K.

History is not neutral

Even in our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove — this often causes controversy.

Whether focused on removing confederate and colonial statues, or retiring a small handful of Dr. Seuss books, these moral panics and culture wars are often rooted in a false premise; that anything from the past comes from a pure and total point of origin, in other words, that representations of confederate soldiers tell a “true,” authentic and complete story that is neutral and objective.

“Don’t erase history!” people often cry, as if history itself wasn’t full of erasures from the beginning.

In historian and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s foundational book Silencing the Past, he examines the relationship between history, power and silence to explore the ways that certain experiences, historical actors and events are kept out of archival collections and the historical knowledge they help construct.

Trouillot illustrates this through highlighting the Haitian revolution: the possibility of Black slaves successfully revolting against their white colonizers was so inconceivable within the western ideology of white supremacy that it was effectively written out of history.

Recategorizing remnants of racism

The racist pages of Dr. Seuss books are not in danger of being lost forever, but recategorized as evidence of outdated attitudes grounded in racial denigration and stereotyping that no longer have a place in popular culture.

Scholars of racism, like myself, can draw on these images and use them to better understand the past.

Some of Geisel’s earlier work was even more explicitly racist than the titles in question, but hasn’t been erased or destroyed and can be found in museums around the world. His earlier work also appears in scholarship on histories of racism, the Second World War and children’s literature, which would be a great place for the images and text from these six books as well.

There are many ways that racism can and should be tackled that don’t result in the erasure of history. But it shouldn’t be shrugged off — especially by white people who are not in a position to make such determinations.

Nowadays, parents and students object to racist texts used in class, people contact the media, political leaders, HR departments and investigatory commissions to report incidents of racism. Companies are boycotted. Protests are organized, movements are mobilized. And organizations like Dr. Seuss Enterprises revisit their policies to ensure they are not perpetuating old-fashioned or harmful practices.

A teacher reads to a group of students
It is time to retire racist representations.

Not without value

I regularly take racist materials out of general circulation — through yard sales, used book stores, discount stores like Dollarama and in tourist shops — so they might be used in research and teaching. I have made many donations to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, including some family heirloom photographs of one of my ancestors performing in vaudeville in blackface. In my classes on African history, I carefully use racist objects and texts to help teach students about histories of anti-Black racism.

While abhorrent, these texts, memorabilia and objects can be useful.

No children should see racism as something that is normal or funny. There is a lot of research that has examined the impact of the overwhelmingly negative representations of racialized people in popular culture. The research shows that images hurt people. That they contribute to assumptions that translate into discrimination in hiring, renting, selling, lending, treating, teaching and policing in ways that are hugely consequential for all of us.

Read more:
Caillou cancelled by PBS: Kids’ TV is now more diverse, but must do better

These realities accumulate across people’s lifetimes in ways that devalue us all because they perpetuate unconscious and conscious racism and inequality.

Retiring racist texts from children’s literature is a crucial step in interrupting the racist legacies that continue to hurt and divide us. With careful contextualization, these historical materials can help document and teach people about the realities of racism that are so often belittled or denied. It also makes space, literally and figuratively, for new texts by diverse authors featuring diverse characters that provide a fuller picture of the world that better reflects the rich variety of people, experiences and perspectives it has to offer.

This is especially important considering how much work still needs to be done in galleries, museums, libraries and archives. These institutions are still overwhelmingly white and male.

It is past time we reach social consensus that racist caricatures should be obsolete. Not everything from the past should be kept alive through republication. Move this content to museums and books on racism where it belongs, but don’t keep it circulating among children.The Conversation

Monica Eileen Patterson, Assistant Director, Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture (Curatorial Studies) and Associate Professor, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, Carleton University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nawal El Saadawi: Egypt’s grand novelist, physician and global activist

Nawal El Saadawi at home in 2015.
David Degner/Getty Images

Adele Newson-Horst, Morgan State University

Egyptian novelist, physician, sociologist and global activist Nawal El Saadawi died on 21 March 2021 at the age of 89. The author of more than 50 books, she told me in one of our many interviews, in 2007, that she self-identified as

an African from Egypt, not from the Middle East … I am not from the third world. There is one world, that is a racist, capitalist economic world. I became a feminist when I was a child – when I started to ask questions to become aware that women are oppressed and feel discrimination.

Although her autobiography A Daughter of Isis (1986) is among the best known of her publications world-wide, she identified her vocation as that of a novelist: “I am mainly a novelist. Most of my books are novels.”

The novelist

In fact, she was always writing a novel. Her 2004 work titled The Novel begins: “The novel caused tremendous outrage … Her life became her first novel.”

Arguably, the place to start in the evaluation of her works is what she deemed the function and perimeters of the novel. She wrote all her novels in Arabic. When asked about the translations of her works, she responded:

Can you translate music? So you can’t translate novels. At least 30% of of the spirit of the work goes. Language is body, spirit, mind … You dream in your (native) language.

Yet she conceded that she wrote essays in English.

El Saadawi was a global iconoclast in the best sense of the phrase. In a world that has become compartmentalised, tribal, overtly racist, anti-science and unashamedly sexist, her novels espoused truths that made her unpopular with many in government and in the so-called establishment. Asked if there was one politician she respected, she explained, “In a system based on oppression, an angel will be corrupted. I don’t have in mind anyone who kept his promise.”

Her penchant for looking at a situation and calling out its components – even though they were shrouded in deceptive marketing – was remarkable. She once confessed to me, “If I don’t tell the truth, I don’t deserve to be called a writer.” She admitted in her autobiography:

Memory is never complete. There are always parts of it that time has amputated. Writing is a way of retrieving them, of bringing the missing parts back to it, or making it more holistic. If memory involves the recall of the things that happened, then the way to render a thing is to draw on creative thoughts.

A scientist and an artist

El Saadawi believed that to be whole – to recover the missing parts – one must embrace the science as well as the artistic and creative. She said:

I am a medical doctor … immersed in blood. I’d rather be with healthy people. I wanted to be a dancer. My father said, ‘Dancing means prostitution.’

Learning from such contradictions early on, El Saadawi became subversive in life and distinctly political in her writings. People have identified her works as political fiction and biographical fiction. To do so is to ignore the art or creativity of her writing. A more prudent evaluation would rest with the marriage of the politics of her life and the creativity that inspired her soul.

An elder woman in pigtails waves at the camera, standing in front of a sports field.
El Saadawi in her US years, at Morgan State University.
Courtesy Adele Newson-Horst

There is a clinical aspect to her writings. She relentlessly focuses on the issues without the trappings of romantic love and sentimentality. That is the key to evaluating and enjoying her works.

She admitted that she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature a couple of times, “but people don’t like my politics”. In a 2012 interview in Baltimore, El Saadawi told me:

I’m proud of myself. Not because I did fantastic things, but because I never changed. People usually compromise. I’m proud because I didn’t compromise.

This insistence on sharing her view of the truth on the condition of women, religion and politics is the key to the continued interest in her works. She never compromised because in many ways the condition of women globally has not much changed and because there is an ethos that persistently governs women, that, she believed, demanded unequivocal attention.

The life

El Saadawi was born in 1931 in a village outside of Cairo. She refused to accept the limitations imposed on her by the religious, gender and colonial oppression most women of rural origin experienced.

She attended the University of Cairo and graduated in 1955 with a degree in psychiatry and rose to become Egypt’s Director of Public Health. Since she began to write over 50 years ago, her books – including the play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting (2006) have concentrated on women, specifically on Arab women, their sexuality and legal status.

In 1972, her first work of non-fiction Women and Sex evoked the antagonism of highly placed political and theological authorities in Egypt and the Ministry of Health was pressured into dismissing her. Under similar pressures, she lost her post as chief editor of a health journal and as assistant general secretary in the Medical Association of Egypt.

Fame and jail

From 1973 to 1976 El Saadawi researched women and neurosis. In 1977, she published her most famous work The Hidden Face of Eve, which covered a host of topics relative to Arab women such as aggression against female children and genital mutilation, prostitution, sexual relationships, marriage and divorce and Islamic fundamentalism.

From 1979 to 1980 she was the United Nation’s advisor for the women’s program in North Africa and the Middle East. Later in 1980, as a culmination of the long war she had fought for Egyptian women’s social and intellectual freedom, she was imprisoned under the Anwar Sadat regime. She was released in 1982 and in 1983 she published Memoirs from the Women’s Prison in which she continued her bold attacks on the repressive Egyptian government. The year 1983 also marked the year that the English version of Woman at Point Zero was published after appearing in Arabic in 1975.

Two women, one younger and one older, stand facing the camera, smiling.
The author, right, with El Saadawi.
Courtesy Adele Newson-Horst

Even after her release from prison, El Saadawi’s life was threatened by those who opposed her work, mainly Islamic fundamentalists. Armed guards were stationed outside her home in Giza for several years until she left the country to be a visiting professor at European and North American universities.

She devoted her time to being a writer, journalist and worldwide speaker on women’s issues. In 2002, officials tried to forcefully divorce her from her husband, but international solidarity helped her to win her case. In 2004 she presented herself as a candidate for presidential election in Egypt. Then in 2007, the controversy of her play God Resigns at the Summit Meeting erupted. She said that those who condemned her hadn’t even read the play.

This was the power of Nawal El Saadawi, that her books – coldly scientific and endlessly creative – were seen as weapons in a war that is still to be won.

Newson-Horst has published two edited volumes on Nawal El Saadawi. They are The Dramatic Literature of Nawal El Saadawi (2009) and The Essential Nawal El Saadawi: A Reader (2010).The Conversation

Adele Newson-Horst, Professor, Morgan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Three ways museums are making classic literature more attractive to young readers

Engaging young people is a challenge for museums.

Heather Green, Nottingham Trent University

For many lovers of classic literature, opportunities to devour the works of undiscovered authors can be enough to make people’s eyes light up. For those who aren’t as keen on the genre, the appeal of these titles is a little less obvious. In fact, it’s one of the reasons museum professionals are running into issues when it comes to inspiring new generations to read such works.

Engaging young people is a challenge for museums and the traditional approaches that literary heritage museums take when dealing with classic authors is becoming a problem. This is because literary heritage museums usually focus on presenting the biographical story, personal effects or archival collection of an author. Relevant and interesting perhaps to those already familiar with an author’s works, but perhaps less successful at engaging would-be readers. The language of some of these authors can also be a barrier to new readers, as can the difficulty of reading “a classic” – which might be seen as irrelevant or out of touch with the modern world.

As the community, learning and engagement officer at Wirksworth Heritage Centre in Derbyshire, my role is to engage audiences of all ages with the local history of Wirksworth. A key element to Wirksworth’s heritage is its literary connections to writers (including George Eliot, DH Lawrence and Daniel Defoe) and the inspiration they took from the people and the landscape of Wirksworth. My PhD research considers how literary heritage is presented in museums throughout the country. I have a particular interest in Nottingham, which was awarded the Unesco City of Literature bid in 2015 due to its rich literary heritage, but also has some of the lowest literacy levels in the country.

Since COVID-19, finding new ways to share our literary heritage both inside and outside of museum walls has become incredibly important. So how should museums show that these authors remain relevant in the 21st century? Literary heritage museums are doing this in a whole host of ways, but here are the three examples of approaches I believe are particularly successful.

1. Retelling stories

From the Austen Project to the many graphic novel retellings and classic novels reimagined as text messages, retelling stories with a contemporary twist is a well-trodden (if not always well-reviewed) path. It’s also a method of interpretation that literary heritage museums are beginning to embrace.

Using new and creative formats can remove some of the barriers to young people wanting to experience these stories and can inspire them to try the “real thing”. As part of my own curatorial work with Dorking Museum, I wrote a book entitled Forster in 50 which accompanies the exhibition Forster at 50. The book provides visitors with an overview of five of Forster’s novels in only 50 words with illustrations, providing more of an accessible introduction to EM Forster’s work.

2. Using technology to draw audiences in

Technology and literature may have seemed like a mismatch once upon a time, but more and more museums are using different technologies to engage audiences with their collections. Before its closure in 2016, the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre presented the 1915 censorship trial of Lawrence’s The Rainbow through a series of Twitter posts in their exhibition No Right to Exist: The Rainbow and Other Books Which Shocked. This condensed the complexities of the trial into a series of 140 character posts, allowing younger audiences to explore the debate in a familiar format and go on to consider what we consider scandalous in literature today.

My own work has included the co-production of Walking with Lawrence, a digital walking tour written from Lawrence’s perspective which allows the listener to connect the author with the city they see today. The use of a creative narrative which is listened to rather than read provides a format that’s easier to understand, removing some of the barriers created by large amounts of text.

3. Collaborating with creative partners

Working with creative partners such as artists and writers can help museums to reach new audiences, providing more approachable information for younger generations in particular. Graphic novels and comic books are incredibly helpful in this respect. I’m working with Wirksworth Heritage Centre’s writer in residence Helen Greetham, who’s currently producing a graphic novel about the literary heritage of George Eliot in Wirksworth.

A similar project is underway in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, working with young people to produce their own Lawrence-inspired graphic stories. The Eastwood Comics project aims to engage “700 further young people (who) will learn about the author and his birthplace by taking part in activities inspired by the young writers’ research”. Here, participation in creative projects and reading new stories help new generations to connect with Lawrence’s heritage in more meaningful ways than regurgitating information about the author.

The pandemic has provided an unprecedented challenge to the heritage sector, but the closure of our sites doesn’t mean we can’t continue to connect people to our history. These new and innovative ways that museums have engaged and inspired younger generations can continue regardless of whether physical buildings are open. In the months ahead, I hope more buildings take similar approaches.The Conversation

Heather Green, PhD Candidate, Literary Heritage, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After a year of digital learning and virtual teaching, let’s hear it for the joy of real books

Kathryn MacCallum, University of Canterbury

We know COVID-19 and its associated changes to our work and learning habits caused a marked increase in the use of technology. More surprising, perhaps, is the impact these lockdowns have had on children’s and young people’s self-reported enjoyment of books and the overall positive impact this has made on reading rates.

A recent survey from the UK, for example, showed children were spending 34.5% more time reading than they were before lockdown. Their perceived enjoyment of reading had increased by 8%.

This seems logical — locked down with less to do means more time for other activities. But with the increase in other distractions, especially the digital kind, it’s encouraging to see many young people still gravitate towards reading, given the opportunity.

In general, most children still read physical books, but the survey showed a small increase in their use of audiobooks and digital devices. Audiobooks were particularly popular with boys and contributed to an overall increase in their interest in reading and writing.

There is no doubt, however, that digital texts are becoming more commonplace in schools, and there is a growing body of research exploring their influence. One such study showed no direct relationship between how often teachers used digital reading instruction and activities and their students’ actual engagement or reading confidence.

Read more:
There’s more than one good way to teach kids how to read

What the study did show, however, was a direct, negative relationship between how often teachers had their students use computers or tablets for reading activities and how much the students liked reading.

These findings suggest physical books continue to play a critical role in fostering young children’s love of reading and learning. At a time when technology is clearly influencing reading habits and teaching practices, can we really expect the love of reading to be fostered by sitting alone on a digital device?

young boy using touch screen tablet
Reading alone on a digital device is no substitute for the real thing.

The limitations of eBooks

In schools and homes we often see eBooks being used to support independent reading. As teachers and parents, we have started to rely on these tools to support our emerging readers. But over-reliance has meant losing the potential for engagement and conversation.

Studies have shown children perform better when reading with an adult, and this is often a richer experience with a print book than with an eBook.

Reading when we’re young is still a communal experience. My own seven-year-old is at the age when reading to me at night is a crucial part of his development as a reader. Relying on him to sit on his own and read from his device will never work.

Read more:
Has the print book trumped digital? Beware of glib conclusions

This is not to deny the usefulness of eBooks. Their adoption in schools has been led by the desire to better support learners. They provide teachers with an extensive library of titles and features designed to entice and motivate.

These embedded features provide new ways of helping children decode language and also offer vital support for children with special needs, such as dyslexia and impaired vision.

The research, however, suggests caution rather than a wholesale adoption of eBooks. Studies have shown the extra features of eBooks, such as pop-ups, animation and sound, can actually distract the learner, detracting from the reading experience and reducing comprehension of the text.

The book as object

Captain Underpants book cover

Real books may lack these interactive features but their visual and tactile nature plays a strong role in engaging the reader.

Because books exist in the same physical space as their readers — scattered and found objects rather than apps on a screen — they introduce the role of choice, one of the big influences on engagement.

While generally a reluctant reader, my child loves to flick through books and look at the pictures. He might not necessarily read every word, but books such as Dog Man, Captain Underpants and Bad Guys have provided a fantastic opportunity to engage him.

We have even managed to link reading with our children’s favourite online games. Their Minecraft manuals have become valuable resources and are even taken to friends’ houses on play-dates.

Many of our books are not in the best shape, evidence they are lived with and loved. Second hand shops and school fairs provide a cheap option for adding variety, and libraries are also valuable for supplementing the home shelves.

Keeping it real

But cuts to library budgets and collections, such as have been announced recently by Wellington Central Library, threaten to further undermine the role of the physical book in children’s lives.

School libraries, too, are often the first space to be sacrificed when budgets and space restrictions tighten. This encourages the uptake of digital books and further reinforces a reliance on technological alternatives.

Read more:
Do we really own our digital possessions?

Of course, digital technology plays an important role in supporting children to engage and learn, often in powerful new ways that would otherwise be impossible.

But in our haste to adopt and rely on “digital solutions” without clear justification or consideration of their effective use, we risk undervaluing the power of objects made from paper and ink.

As we emerge from a pandemic that has accelerated digital progress, we can’t let these developments obscure the place of real books in real — as opposed to virtual — lives.The Conversation

Kathryn MacCallum, Associate Professor, University of Canterbury

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.