Dr Seuss museum to remove 'racist' mural

The mural at The Amazing World of Dr Seuss museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, shows a Chinese character with chopsticks, slanted eyes and a pointed hat.
The mural at The Amazing World of Dr Seuss museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, shows a Chinese character with chopsticks, slanted eyes and a pointed hat.PHOTO: NYTIMES

It will replace the caricature of 'the Chinaman' character from one of the late author's books, after complaints of it being a jarring racial stereotype

NEW YORK • A Dr Seuss museum in Massachusetts has agreed to replace a mural showing a Chinese character with chopsticks, slanted eyes and a pointed hat after three authors said the depiction is racist and refused to attend a museum event in protest.

The authors - Mo Willems, Mike Curato and Lisa Yee - said in a letter last Thursday that they would not attend a book festival on Saturday at The Amazing World of Dr Seuss museum in Springfield because of the "jarring racial stereotype" of the character from Dr Seuss' book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

"We find this caricature of 'the Chinaman' deeply hurtful and have concerns about children's exposure to it," the letter said.

The authors published a copy of the letter on their social media accounts.

The book in which the character appears, published in 1937, was the first by author Theodor Geisel, who went on to become a giant of children's literature under the name Dr Seuss.

"While the image may have been considered amusing to some when it was published 80 years ago, it is obviously offensive in 2017," the authors said in their letter.

The letter was addressed to Springfield Museums, an organisation that includes the Dr Seuss museum and four other museums, and Dr Seuss Enterprises, which oversees Geisel's brand.

Following the uproar, Dr Seuss Enterprises said it would replace the mural with another image depicting another of Dr Seuss' stories.

"This is what Dr Seuss would have wanted us to do," said a statement. "His later books, like The Sneetches and Horton Hears A Who, showed a great respect for fairness and diversity. Dr Seuss would have loved to be a part of this dialogue for change. In fact, Ted Geisel himself said, 'It's not how you start that counts. It's what you are at the finish.'"

The authors followed up with a second letter saying they would attend the children's book event, but a separate announcement from the museum said the event has been cancelled, without giving a reason.

Last Friday, Ms Susan Brandt, president of Dr Seuss Enterprises, said that the mural had been intended to illustrate the "wonderful possibility of a child's imagination", which was the story line of the Mulberry Street book. "The decision to remove the mural was a difficult choice," she said in an e-mail.

She said work has already begun with an artist to create a new mural, but that the authors' event has not been rescheduled. "We are in the process of deciding the best course of action, without censorship, to contextualise any perceived racist content in Dr Seuss' body of work," she said.

Geisel was born in Springfield in 1904 and his legacy there is celebrated with activities, including a tour of Mulberry Street, a memorial interactive sculpture garden that opened in 2002 and special weeks designated to honour him.

But some of the work of the author, who died in 1991, has come under scrutiny and criticism - particularly his depictions of Asians and Africans.

That debate roared back into the spotlight last month after United States First Lady Melania Trump sent 10 Dr Seuss books to a school in each state - and a librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent them back.

"Dr Seuss' illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures and harmful stereotypes," librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro wrote in a letter.

The comments were "political correctness at its worst", Springfield mayor Domenic J. Sarno said.

A New York Times review of the Dr Seuss museum, which opened in June, noted that the displays there had overlooked Geisel's antiJapanese cartoons from World War II, which he later said he regretted.

Professor Philip Nel, a children's literature scholar at Kansas State University and author of Dr Seuss: American Icon, said in an interview last Friday that Geisel's evolution on race was "incomplete" and could have been given context at the museum.

In early editions of Mulberry, the "Chinaman" character had yellow skin and pigtails. In editions published in the 1970s, the pigmentation and pigtails were gone and the character was referred to as a "Chinese man".

"He still has the slanted eyes and is still running along with chopsticks, but it is toned down from the original," Prof Nel said. "He was responsive to criticisms of his work. That is a story worth telling in the museum."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Dr Seuss museum to remove 'racist' mural'. Print Edition | Subscribe