EBay allows people to sell Adolf Hitler's “Mein Kampf” on its site, as well as the infamously false and anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” “Peter Pan,” laden with stereotypes about Native Americans, is for sale there, along with the many books of the “Little House on the Prairie” series, which includes minstrel shows, refers to Black people as “darkies” and contains many negative depictions of Native Americans even though the white protagonists were illegally squatting on Indian land.
And it’s fine that all of these are sold. Terrible books with troubling content shouldn’t be erased from all memory. So how is it that the six discontinued books by Dr. Seuss are now banned from auction or sale on the site?
That’s what the site has announced, after prices on the books shot up to the clouds on the news that they wouldn’t be printed because of racist imagery and some racist wording.
The Times editorial board supported the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing those books, but not because all books with racist content should be banned. Most adults are smart enough to know the difference between acceptable and deplorable depictions of marginalized people, and how much of the latter comes from eras in which the deplorable was accepted and far too often celebrated. Not that we’ve gotten past that time, but as a society, many of us are trying.
But these Seuss books were written for preschoolers and primary-grade students. They generally were read time and again by the same children, meaning that racist depictions of Chinese people wearing coolie hats and Africans with hoops in their noses were impressed deeply into their minds, and for many might have formed their first impressions of these groups.
People who are forking over hundreds of dollars for a copy of “If I Ran the Zoo” aren’t doing it for the perverse pleasure of showering young minds with racist propaganda. They’re snapping up what they think will be a valuable collectible, or simply because of nostalgic fondness for the entire Seuss oeuvre, so that the books won’t entirely disappear.
I get it. At a library used-book sale decades ago, I bought an early edition of Ogden Nash’s “Adventures of Isabel,” a lively rhyming tale about a gutsy little girl who faces down nightmares, bears and the like. In one scenario, she's being treated by a Black doctor who punches and pokes her and tries to get her to take a pill. Isabel doesn’t comply; she turns around and “cures the doctor.” Curing him, it turns out, turns him into a white man.
I read the book to my older kids, wincing at that particular page but, to my shame, never just tossing the book. Sometimes I skipped over the offending part, but of course the kids would note my “mistake” and demand that I turn back to it. Finally, I shelved the book, but I didn’t throw it out. It’s a reminder of the twisted concepts we never thought much about, even if we considered ourselves non-racists.
The decision to discontinue the books was made by the organization in charge of Dr. Seuss’ legacy, and it was the right one. Those books no longer have a proper place on a young child’s bookshelf. It’s a different matter to prevent adults who want to collect books from being able to purchase copies of them.
This is an obvious attempt by EBay to brand itself as an anti-racist company, and it’s well within its legal rights to refuse to allow the sale of whatever it wants. But because the venues for purchasing these books are now extremely limited, it also acts as a kind of censor of which books people can decide to collect and place on their shelves, and that’s a shame — and downright hypocritical. If EBay truly thinks that banning offensive books on its site makes it look better, it had better check out a lot more of the offerings up for auction there.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.