That Sam-I-Am, that Sam-I-Am, I do not like that Sam-I-Am.
So begins Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. In which a frumpy, pear-shaped relative of Sasquatch wearing nothing but floppy ears and a crumpled stovepipe hat lets fly his contempt for an impish, mustard-fur bipedal monkey cat named Sam who relentlessly tries to serve an unappetizing breakfast.
Two pages in and I was not really fond of Sam-I-Am either. I mean, he is kind of annoying, constantly racing around the house on the back of a shaggy dingo dog waving loud signs to announce his presence.
Of course Sam endears himself over several pages of rhyming nouns, softening the crusty reserve of the bigoted yellow Bigfoot and ultimately enlightening his palate to exotic breakfast foods of color.
For most of my life I thought it was a story that parents read to get their kids to eat peas.
I now understand that it is about overcoming bias as told by strange animals without genitals that wear hats.
Among the vast collection of books that I once read to my kids are thirteen by Dr. Seuss. Many of these books, though not all the same ones, were read to me as a child. And like theme songs to television shows gone by, the prose of tight rhyming nonsensical words are bound to my consciousness forever.
When it was announced the other day that a handful of Dr. Seuss books have been discontinued because they contain racially insensitive and offensive images, I immediately perused my titles. I have three of the books.
And yes, the isolated images are insensitive and racially charged.
I was mortified that I was harboring racist material on my bookshelf until I discovered the books are now selling at a premium. The thought that I could make some money and pass off my racism to someone else on eBay was appealing. But my better nature prevailed.
I am going to donate them instead to the Trump Presidential Library, which for the time being is probably above a gold toilet in a Mar-a-Largo cabana.
I can’t say I am surprised that there are awkward illustrations in these books. They were written in the 50s and earlier. And we are talking about a man who drew phantasmagorical creatures with unsightly body hair piloting rickety multi-wheeled contraptions willy nilly about crooked purple buildings and rainbow dandelion trees.
Add a few human caricatures onto the pages without forethought and before he can count to one fish two fish, Dr. Seuss has perpetuated inappropriate stereotypes that we have spent decades trying to erase.
It makes me wonder if the Grinch might really be a green supremacist.
As an educated, well-meaning white guy, I have always considered myself to be race sensitive, but not racist. The difference to me was the recognition and embrace of cultural or racial differences without conscious bias born of ignorance. Differences, I thought, should be acknowledged, explored, and celebrated. Not shut down or ignored.
This comfortable view of the world probably explains why in my Seuss library I also have a copy of Huevos Verdes con Jamón. The eggs are still green but the rhymes are different. And it’s harder to read.
But I haltingly learned during the tumultuous pandemic spring of BLM that as an educated, well-meaning white guy, I am the very nexus of racism. At least in the eyes of historians and psychologists and civil rights academics who study this stuff. Bias is a necessary byproduct of difference, even if it is unconscious. You don’t get one without the other. And confronting bias is relentless and uncomfortable.
In the imaginary words of Dr. Seuss, it is explained this way:
If you think that you are, you probably are
No matter how near no matter how far.
And you probably are if you think that you’re not
No matter how cold, no matter how hot.
Because though you’ve arrived from the place you have come
It is a long journey that is nowhere near done.
So pick up your baggage and lift up your feet
And go out and talk to the people you meet.
In this Dr Seuss book I am standing naked on the cover with a red bow tie and tufts of fur growing from awkward places. I am uncomfortable, but at least I am still being published.
There are a lot of important life lessons to be learned reading Dr. Seuss. Acceptance. Responsibility. Altruism. Self-empowerment. Understanding. Trying new foods. Befriending green pants.
And maybe confronting the Thing One and Thing Two that we overlook. No matter where or how they appear in the book.
I have thirteen Dr. Seuss titles on a shelf because I am saving them for the day I have grandchildren. I hope to be a wiser man when I read them again.