Daily Connector | In Dr. Suess’s Company | Dan Halterman

What is one story from your family lineage that impacts how you think about repair for future generations?

I rummaged through my stock of family stories to find something fitting this prompt.  I climbed through my dad’s family tree, testing several thin branches, then shinnied into my mom’s where some colorful characters perched, before returning to the first tree and remembering that my dad’s sister Virginia worked in an insurance agency where Theodore S. Geisel was a client.   Yes, my aunt knew Dr. Seuss – maybe when he was writing favorites that unfortunately carried racist illustrations.  (Reports suggest he later acknowledged his error.)

I was relieved that “Bartholomew and the Ooblek” isn’t (yet) implicated, although, yes, the character illustrations are entirely “white.”  And the Royal Magicians in Mount Neeka-tave are certainly caricatures of some sort.

Dr. Seuss books were perennially popular, and I didn’t know racism (or any “ism”) when I enjoyed them.  I didn’t know later in my youth that the Cleveland-area “ethnic parodies” that were the creative comedic bulwark of the popular local Friday night TV movie hosts would offend some people.

We can know only what we learn, whether actively or passively.  I knew somehow that “the n-word” was inappropriate – never heard it in my family – and in my youthful ignorance and naivete I was offended by the satire of “All in the Family” when it was first on TV and had my dad in stitches.  When Robin Walton long ago shared with our congregation what she’d learned at a conference on White Privilege, I immediately argued that I, with my lower middle-class background in nearly all-white Wadsworth, was not privileged.  The concept slowly percolated in and later I understood better.  And with my comfortable hubris, I think I understand better now.

The Dr. Seuss commotion raised mixed emotions for me because I’ve unlearned some important things (rarely easily) and I’m beset with laziness and self-esteem issues and don’t volunteer for unlearning.  

Life is complicated.  Dr. Seuss teaching important aspects of life in “The Lorax,” “Bartholomew and the Ooblek,” and “The Snitches” is the same man – although maybe not the same person – who included racist images in other books.   I could produce a lengthy list of personal regrets, things that either seemed OK at the time then proved otherwise, or things I knew were wrong and opted to do anyway, then regretted.  With acknowledged arrogance I claim to be in the company of Dr. Seuss.

I wonder what I may next (un)learn.  I’m fond of telling college students that, contrary to the general understanding that graduation will place them on the doorstep of “success” (and, vaguely, life satisfaction and, finally, comfortable retirement), they will immediately matriculate into the School of Hard Knocks for the duration and tuition is often quite costly.

We of a certain age remember when the racism concerns were the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, Equal Opportunity, and “quotas.”  All were significant steps forward and considered such…probably by Whites more than by others.   Now it is the same and different.  And with enough history behind us, I’ll comfortably assert that in fifty or one hundred years society, if more “woke,” will shake its collective head and/or berate us for our willful ignorance of various realities that to us seem normal and acceptable.  So, I hope grace is available to me for each thing I next unlearn.  And for the things I don’t.