Dr. Seuss museum will remove mural after authors object to ‘racial stereotype’

The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, in Springfield, Massachusetts, this year. Credit
The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, in Springfield, Massachusetts, this year. Credit –Tony Luong / The New York Times

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 was racist and refused to attend a museum event in protest.

The authors, Mo Willems, Mike Curato and Lisa Yee, said in a letter Thursday that they would not attend a book festival Oct. 14 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.

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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 the 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 the Springfield Museums, an organization that includes the Dr. Seuss museum and four other museums, and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which oversees Geisel’s brand. Hours later, the two organizations announced that the mural would be replaced:

“Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss during his lifetime from 1904-1991. Dr. Seuss created an enormous body of work including children’s books and political cartoons. Dr. Seuss was a man of his times. He was also a man who evolved with his times. Dr. Seuss’ own story is a story of growth with some early works containing hurtful stereotypes to later works like The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who! which contain lessons of tolerance and inclusion.

“It is in that spirit that Dr. Seuss Enterprises and the Springfield Museums listened to the concerns voiced by the authors and fans and have made the decision to take down the Mulberry street mural at the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum and replace it with a new image that reflects the wonderful characters and messages from Dr. Seuss’ later works. This is what Dr. Seuss would have wanted us to do. 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.”

After the museums’ announcement, 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 had been canceled, without giving a reason.

On Friday, Susan Brandt, the 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 email.

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Brandt said that work had already begun with an artist to create a new mural but that the authors’ event had not been rescheduled. “We are in the process of deciding the best course of action, without censorship, to contextualize 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 honor him.

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

Last month, a school librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Liz Phipps Soeiro, rejected a donation of Dr. Seuss books from Melania Trump, saying Geisel’s books were “racist,” according to The Associated Press. The comments were “political correctness at its worst,” Domenic J. Sarno, the mayor of Springfield, said.

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

Philip Nel, a children’s literature scholar at Kansas State University and the author of “Dr. Seuss: American Icon,” said in an interview 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.”

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