Keeping It Separate

Is it possible to separate an artists’ bad deeds from the work they have created?

Dr. Suess has recently come under fire for his racist portrayal of people of color.

From Wikipedia

Dr. Suess has recently come under fire for his racist portrayal of people of color.

Paola Bahena

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” We’ve all heard this inspiring quote from Dr. Seuss at some point in our childhood. In his books, Dr. Seuss always includes a meaningful message with a quirky rhyme that could reach and warm people’s hearts. We may not have caught Dr. Seuss’s message as children, but as we grow older we value more the meaning of what he truly meant to say.

That’s why a recent op-ed from NPR that talks about Dr. Suess’s racist past leaves a lot of us reeling. Theodor Seuss Geisel was a writer and cartoonist who published over 60 books, in which his rhymes and characters are beloved by generations of fans. According to the website Biography, “his first book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times before it actually got published by Vanguard Press in 1937.” He then published The Cat in the Hat, which made a huge major turning point in Geisel’s career. Other books such as Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Horton Hears a Who!, Fox in Socks, became a huge success and motivated many young readers.  

Although many of these books are people’s favorite classics, it seems like Dr. Seuss’s books do contain racist messages that people have overlooked. According to Tiara Jenkins and Jessica Yarmosky, who wrote that NPR op-ed, “Some of Seuss’ classics have been criticized for the way they portray people of color. In In To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example, a character described as Chinese has two lines for eyes, carries chopsticks and a bowl of rice, and wears traditional Japanese-style shoes. In If I Ran The Zoo, two men said to be from Africa are shown shirtless, shoeless and wearing grass skirts as they carry an exotic animal.”

When I found out about this information, I was shocked and it even made me change my story idea. At first, I was going to write about why there needs to be an actual holiday honoring Dr. Seuss because his work has motivated many young readers for so many years. As I kept reading the article, however, I became more shocked when Jenkins and Yarmosky mentioned that a bunch of researchers found that only 2 percent of Dr. Seuss’s characters were people of color, and they were all depicted in a racist way. Considering the impressionable age of most of Dr. Suess’s readers, that can’t be a good statistic. The quote that really got me from the article was from first-grade teacher Emily Petersen, who said she wouldn’t be reading any Dr. Seuss books in her classroom filled with young readers: “If I’m looking at a 6-year-old and choosing what story [I’m] going to teach them how to read through, I’m definitely going to choose the one that affirms and celebrates identities in a new way.”

Finding out about Dr.Seuss’s past feels vaguely familiar because it seems like we’re always hearing about artists with awful histories. All you have to do is take a peek at some recent headlines and you see the uproar over documentaries like “Surviving R. Kelly” and “Finding Neverland,” as well as all the people uncovered and under fire with last year’s #MeToo movement. With so many artists doing terrible things, at what point do we stop listening to them, watching their movies and reading their books? When do we separate the art from the creators? Is it even possible?

People like R.Kelly and Michael Jackson have made people upset because of the fact that although they are talented artists, they are also sexual abusers. Pete Davidson, one of the cast members from “Saturday Night Live,” spoke about this topic on the show’s March 9 episode and gives his opinion on it. Davidson says, “It seems like really talented people are sick.” Davidson offered his solution to such a tricky situation:  “So with guys like R.Kelly, the rule should be that if you want to listen to their music, you just have to admit that they’re bad people…All I’m saying is pretending these people never existed is maybe not the solution. The rule should be that you can appreciate their work, but only if you admit what they did.”

I can definitely see Davidson’s point and I feel like it’s a good rule. To end his speech, Davidson comes up with a plan for those who want to continue listening or watching someone who has proven to be a terrible person where he says, “Every time any of us listen to a song or watch a movie by an accused sexual predator, you have to give a dollar to charity that supports sexual abuse victims.”

Mr. James Trottier, who teaches English at Round Lake High school takes a different stance: “I could separate the bad an artist has done from their artistic performance. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to, nor will I,” he said. “Any song by R. Kelly, any video by Michael Jackson, and any performance by Kevin Spacey is still just as artistically pleasing, but I also will not support any of their past endeavors anymore and I definitely will not support them artistically in the future. Even monsters can create beauty, but they are still monsters and we should do everything we can to not support monsters.”

Ms. Jessica Rodriguez, one of the library media assistants here at RLHS, has to take on a different perspective because of her job. “Being a library professional, I am trained to remove my feelings and beliefs about an artist, creator,  or author to provide information and materials that can serve all members of the community without bias or censorship,” she said. But that’s not to say she doesn’t personally struggle with separating personal identity with artistic identity. “Many times these artists…have pretty well-established careers before the headlines start to roll out,” she said. “So you may have already invested your time and money into these persons, formed opinions and seeing their art may evoke emotions you previously had; just because they are accused of something doesn’t typically make me think differently of the art they have created in the past. I don’t believe it would necessarily stop me from the old things they created, but it would make me pause and think about it more, and I would probably not be investing any ‘new’ time in their new creations.”

Going back to the Dr. Seuss quote, he has given many significant messages that have inspired people for so many years but his actions have shown that he was a racist. However, just because he did have a terrible personality, it doesn’t mean we don’t have the option of not reading his books or quotes anymore. We do have the option of separating his personality with his talent because bottom line, it’s a totally personal decision whether we want to keep listening to R. Kelly or sharing those Dr. Seuss books with the next generation of readers.  But if we do, it’s important to accept the truth about what they did and who they are.