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The absurdity of deeming a Dr. Seuss story decrying racism as inappropriate for kids

What happened in a Ohio classroom is sadly symbolic of the way many talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and the injustices he fought against.
Photo illustration: Repeated covers of the book,"The Sneetches and other stories" by Dr. Seuss on a yellow background.
MSNBC / Random House Inc.

Here’s a shout-out to Noah, a third grader at Shale Meadows Elementary School near Columbus, Ohio. According to NPR’s “Planet Money” host Erika Beras, as Noah’s teacher read “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss, published in 1961, the student said Sneetches with stars shunning Sneetches without stars sounded “almost like what happened back then, how people were treated ... like, white people disrespected Black people.”

People whose views would have in no way aligned with a living Martin Luther King Jr. pay insipid praise to the martyr.

Not only should we be impressed that Noah connected a story about prejudiced Sneetches to racist people, but we should also take note of him expressing the thought in the active voice, using a subject, verb and object. He said, “White people disrespected Black people.” It’s becoming rarer that sentences about our country’s racist history are structured with such clarity.

You’ll notice how rare it is on this day, especially, when you hear people whose views would have in no way aligned with a living Martin Luther King Jr. pay insipid praise to the martyr. They’ll say King had courage, but they won’t say why he needed it. They’ll say he marched, but they won’t say against whom. They’ll say we shall overcome, but they won’t name the people who are the obstacles. They’ll say he was a hero, but they won’t dare mention Jim Crow’s villains.

I doubt you’ll hear anyone speak with Noah’s clarity or acknowledge that Black people weren’t just passively oppressed but that white people were actively oppressing them.

Beras was in teacher Mandy Robek’s class as Robek read aloud from “The Sneetches,” a story about Star-Belly Sneetches who kept "their snoots in the air" and had "nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort." The NPR host had brought the third graders a stack of children’s books that economists had recommended as useful for teaching economic concepts. Seuss’ story was the last book of the day, Beras reports. And all was going well until Noah made the connection that the Sneetches with stars on their bellies were stand-ins for racist white people.

At that point, according to Beras, a communications staffer for the Olentangy Local School District brought the reading of the Seuss allegory to a halt and said, “I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it.” The school district had approved the books Beras had brought. But that district employee said, “I just don’t think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted to around economics. So I’m sorry. We’re going to cut this one off.”

When the students ask how the story ends, they’re told by that staffer, “Sometimes, when you don’t feel comfortable, you got something in your belly, you got to just speak up about it, right?” Her summary that the story is about having “something in your belly” is just as erroneous as her suggestion that a discussion about racism isn’t a discussion about economics.

Parents have besieged school boards and departments of education, demanding that children’s books on Ruby Bridges and, yes, Martin Luther King, be kept from students.

When the show host later emailed the school district for a response, she said she was told that “school districts across the nation are being scrutinized for book selections in our schools on both sides of the spectrum.”

That “both sides of the spectrum” part is hogwash. Activists from the right are the ones challenging books at our schools and libraries. Parents have besieged school boards and departments of education, demanding that children’s books on Ruby Bridges and, yes, Martin Luther King, be kept from students. Regardless of what her own views may be, that communications staffer likely sensed that there’d be trouble when it got out that students in Robek’s class were discussing race.

The irony here is twofold. First, less than two years ago Republicans were accusing progressives of canceling Dr. Seuss. The truth is that Dr. Seuss Enterpises, which exists to preserve the legacy of Theodor Seuss Geisel, decided that it was wise to discontinue certain Dr. Seuss books because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

The books that Dr. Seuss Enterprises discontinued include problematic images, such as a white man with a whip standing over a man of another race riding an elephant, and a white boy with a gun perched upon the heads of three Asian men.

Republicans cried foul and used the phony controversy to raise funds. “Lefties are losing their minds that I’m signing & sending copies of Green Eggs and Ham to anyone who donates $60 or more. We’ve raised $125k in just 24 hours! (Probably helped by their hand-wringing.)”

Nobody had complained about “Green Eggs and Ham.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tweeted, “If Dr. Seuss wanted to #DefundThePolice, his books wouldn’t be getting canceled.” But when news broke of an incident in his state in which a school official stopped children from describing a Seuss story as being about racism, Jordan had absolutely nothing to tweet.

The second irony is that “The Sneetches” oversimplifies race in a way that only a conservative could love. The Sneetches disliked one another, but then one day they realized disliking one another was too costly, and they stopped. They, meaning those who’d been oppressed and those who'd been doing the oppressing, realized that “no kind of Sneetch is the best” and they “forgot about stars.” It’s like the “content of their character” part of a famous King speech that conservatives often quote as if it were an accurate summary of the speech itself.

Maybe we need Noah to explain to those who misrepresent it that King’s speech is about the many ways white people disrespected Black people and that nothing about that speech or King’s life deserves to be treated as a fairy tale.