|To give you a sense of what an abstract looks like, here is one of mine. I wrote it for the American Studies Association's 2008 annual conference (Albuquerque, NM). I presented it there on October 18, 2008. Exlucing the title and my contact information, it's 498 words long (the limit was 500). The long version will appear as "Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss's Racial Imagination" in Children’s Literature 42 (2014).|
“The Black Cat in the Hat: Seuss and Race in the 1950s”
Philip Nel, Kansas State University
In 1955, Dr. Seuss and William Spaulding — director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division — stepped into the publisher’s elevator. Its operator was Annie Williams, an African-American woman who wore white gloves and a secret smile. Spaulding thought Seuss could solve the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis by writing a better reading primer. Seuss gave this book’s protagonist Williams’ white gloves, sly smile, and color. The Cat in the Hat is black because Williams and other influences were black. Another source is Krazy Kat, the red-bow-tied, ambiguously gendered creation of African-American cartoonist George Herriman. Seuss, who admired Krazy Kat, also draws upon the traditions of minstrelsy — a recurring influence in his 1920s magazine cartoons. In this paper, I read the Cat in the Hat as racially black. Doing so helps delineate the African-American cultural imaginary in Seuss’s work, the evolution of Seuss’s racial politics, and how children’s literature reflects and obscures the struggle for civil rights.
What Eric Lott says about nineteenth-century minstrels might also be said about Seuss’s twentieth-century black cat. The Cat and minstrels are ambivalent figures “with moments of resistance to the dominant culture as well as moments of suppression,” and they emerge during a struggle over the role of blacks in American society. Though not explicitly about integration, The Cat in the Hat (1957) dramatizes a conflict between a black cat and white children. The Cat’s character and costume borrow from Zip Coon, that foppish “northern dandy negro,” who William Mahar calls “a confidence man who is sincere and ignorant of the values associated with social station or power.” The Cat’s umbrella and outrageous fashion sense — striped hat, bright red bowtie — recall Zip Coon, as does his pretense of knowing this middle-class household’s rules. Like Krazy Kat, another black cartoon cat with roots in minstrelsy, Seuss’s Cat is ambiguous, both crossing boundaries and reminding us of where those boundaries should be.
Emerging at a crucial juncture in Seuss’s development as a consciously political artist, The Cat in the Hat displays both the unconscious racism of his earliest work and the progressive ideals of his mature work. In the 1950s, Seuss introduces this anti-prejudice motif in “The Sneetches” (Redbook, 1953; book, 1961), and Horton Hears a Who! (1954), published the same year as Brown vs. Board of Education. Yet, Seuss also publishes If I Ran the Zoo (1950), in which protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to the “African island of Yerka,” where he meets two mostly naked black natives, and to “Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.” The Cat embodies the contradictions of Seuss’s work in the 1950s. A black character in a white family’s home, he is both fun and terrifying. He liberates Sally and her brother from stifling social rules, but brings many dangers — the very real possibility of the household’s destruction, the fish’s death, and mother’s censure. Read as racially black, the Cat conveys a mixed message about integration, performing Seuss’s struggle with racism.