My mother had a ban on pork, and I thought she was mad that I broke it. One afternoon four decades ago, when I was about 8, I walked into my family’s house after playing outside and saw my mother sitting in the yellow recliner with a book in her lap. She had found the copy of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.
I knew that I was in trouble, because normally no one sat in the canary-colored La-Z-Boy, a throne reserved for my grandmother. Another member of the family occupying it automatically meant that something very serious had happened. Seeing the book she was holding, I briefly assumed that its subject was the problem; consuming unclean swine meats was a sin in our church.
But the real issue, I soon learned, was that Dr. Seuss was on our family’s list of banned authors—for precisely the reason that the famous children’s book author is in the news this week: Some of his works portrayed nonwhite people in a racist way. My mother went to what I now realize were enormous lengths to shield us from negative images of Black people, a seemingly impossible task for someone raising children in 1970s and ’80s South Carolina. The intensity of her displeasure over a Dr. Seuss book being in her home—and not even one of the objectionable titles—speaks to how much labor her plan required.
The book that got me in trouble wasn’t even mine. My youngest sister, Robin, had received it as a gift. But knowing that it was forbidden, my sisters placed it in my care because they were younger and I was the sibling most skilled at hiding things. I had no idea how my mother discovered the secret stash spot between my mattress and box spring. Either she knew magic, or I wasn’t as good at hiding as I had thought. Regardless, she was about to perform her duty as chief justice of our family’s House Court, and I was going to be the defendant.
Yes, we had a whole judicial system in the Harriot home, which my mother had instituted to give my three sisters and me the chance to learn from our transgressions. There was no court of appeals. Even the neighbors knew about our system. (Of course they did. Who else would serve as jurors?)
That Friday afternoon, I quickly assembled my legal defense team (my sisters), and we decided that I should throw myself on the mercy of the court. Given that I was already in trouble, it was my responsibility to conceal a wider conspiracy that included dramatic Dr. Seuss recitations. We knew that if my mother found out about our pro-pork performances, we might not be allowed back outside indefinitely. My mother didn’t play about such things. After all, she was sitting in the yellow chair!
Before conservatives threw a hissy fit about Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ recent decision to stop publishing six of his books, I assumed most people knew that Seuss, despite the support he expressed for civil rights, was capable of depicting human beings of other races in demeaning ways. Painting Seuss as a victim of rabid “wokeness” is like saying police brutality is a recent epidemic that began when people started uploading cellphone footage. No, it’s in the news because some white people just started noticing. So, calm down—Dr. Seuss hasn’t been “canceled.”
Trust me, I know. As someone who grew up with a mother who was saved, sanctified, and filled with the holy-but-defiant spirit of Malcolm X, I am intimately familiar with “cancel culture.” Nearly all the standard accoutrements of American youth were banned from my mother’s house. Christmas was for heathens. Toy guns were forbidden because they caused violence. I was diagnosed with ADHD—back then, it was called “Mikey is too hyper”—so, according to the American Mama Association, sugar and any food containing Yellow No. 5 dye was a pleasure meant only for weekends.
In addition to banning Dr. Seuss and pork-related literature, my mother was very intentional about limiting our contact with white people. My three sisters and I were homeschooled during our elementary years. We lived in a Black neighborhood, attended a Black church, and were citizens of a country that once dreamed up an idea called “segregation,” so we didn’t have much contact with white people anyway. But my mother also altered the cover of children’s books or sometimes removed them completely if they had white faces. When she read bedtime stories, she’d substitute our names for those of the characters. She would even record cassette tapes, so that when she worked the night shift of her second job, we could still fall asleep to the sound of her reading. (Later, when I read the Encyclopedia Brown series myself, I thought, This sounds like a white version of Encyclopedia Mikey that my mom used to read!)
I knew that white people existed, of course. I had seen them at the Piggly Wiggly and on television. Arthur Fonzarelli seemed cool, when we caught him on TV, and Phillip Drummond was nice enough to invite Arnold and Willis Jackson into his home. At our house, though, no white dolls were allowed. We couldn’t watch reruns of The Jeffersons or Sanford and Son simply because they depicted white people’s versions of Black people. Our entertainment catalog was mostly limited to World Book Encyclopedia, four-days-a-week church services, Sesame Street, and all the “outside” we could handle.
I eventually came to see Blackness in the same way that most of America sees whiteness: as a default. At 11, I was even temporarily traumatized when I found out that the Hardy Boys were white. Discovering that they weren’t two kids from Detroit was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life. Their names were Frank and Joe Hardy!
A few years ago, I asked my mother why she put so much effort into concocting this Caucasian-free cocoon. She informed me that our childhood was part of an experiment she had envisioned before we were even born. “A Black person’s humanity can never be fully realized in the presence of whiteness,” she explained. Not a single day has passed since in which I have not thought about that sentence.
My mother did not hate white people any more than she hated George Jefferson or liberals hate Dr. Seuss. Her child-rearing tactics had less to do with racism than they had to do with the overwhelming presence of whiteness. Most Black children are exposed to an infinitely wide variety of whiteness, but the available depictions of Black people have been, until recently, extremely limited. Such portrayals aren’t necessarily negative as much as they are dichotomous—sassy or subservient; poor or lucky; the criminal or the hero. These are mostly white people’s versions of Black people.
Black people’s entire existence is defined by these perceptions, while white people get to be everything. And because most Americans can’t unsee whiteness as a default, they don’t recognize that the hero of the story is nearly always white. Sometimes the villain is too. And so is the victim. And the victim’s lawyer. And the judge. And if you’re reading this and pointing out all the times when the hero or the judge in a TV show or a movie was Black, ask yourself this: Why did you notice?
I don’t have an opinion on Dr. Seuss as a person. As a child, I became aware of Seuss’s illustrated stereotypes only when my mother informed me, during the sentencing phase, that his repeated use of the word ham is not what made him offensive. Today, I wouldn’t read his books to my children. But I also wouldn’t want my children to consume white people’s depictions of Black people from throughout most of American history. In fact, I’d be more astounded if someone told me that a writer and illustrator who was born in 1904 had never drawn or written something racist.
The issue matters because the images children see and the words they hear are small but important parts of the person they eventually become. During my two weeks in solitary confinement (the maximum sentence imposed under House Court), my mother let me keep the contraband book. To this day, my sisters and I can still recite every word of Green Eggs and Ham.