Not quite, most of them are dead and many of them were in fact people who fought for human rights of all kinds or artists and most of them were black anyway. John Coltrane firmly falls into hero status for me, not only the father of modern jazz and one of the creators of the Avant Garde jazz that I now make myself, he also represents the American Civil Rights movement, he was poor, he fought through addiction and inspired millions (and continues to inspire long after his death in 1967) But he tragically died at the age of 37, as I am now 38 I have outlived him and it does cross my mind of what he achieved versus myself, but to compare is pointless, there are some small but significant similarities but we couldn’t be more different in most ways.
Dr Seuss or Theodor Seuss Geisel as his real name was is possibly the most read children’s author in the world, born in 1904 and dying in 1991 s reputedly the 9th bestselling author of all time. I like many children grew up with Seuss’s books throughout my life, I read them all, hilarious and clever rhymes, crazy odd characters (aliens, animals, people?) and his books ranged from educational stories for very young children (Hop on Pop is basic literacy) to the larger work the Lorax which is an allegory for the way capitalism is destroying our planet and certainly for me implanted ideas of ecology at a young age. Loved by millions I have often personally described him as the greatest author of all time. I probably don’t need to explain who he is for most of you. Like John Coltrane I aspire to make inspirational music and like Dr Seuss I aspire to make inspirational writing. I don’t expect to ever reach the same levels as them but we all have people who we aspire to be like even in little ways.
But I recently found out about something that disturbed me. This was recent reports about Seuss being a racist, read these articles for some pretty definitive evidence of that fact.
Although his cartoons were anti-Nazi, he depicted black people and Japanese people in clearly bigoted ways particularly in this series of ads he drew for Flit insect repellent, the way Africans are represented is very much…
What does this mean? Is Dr Seuss the only beloved artist who has turned out to be a scumbag? No, I remember reading about one of James Brown’s many arrests for beating his wife, needless to say I only picture that when I hear his music and choose not to listen to his music anymore, ground-breaking though it was. Seuss held racist views of certain people, can we chalk this up to the era in which he lived? These cartoons were made in the much less enlightened 1940’s, right? No, being bigoted isn’t restricted to the past and plenty of people then didn’t hold those views. He may not have been an outright in your face racist (totally debatable based on this cartoons) but he certainly made them and they were definitely wrong.
Does this mean, that like James Brown, a man who beat his wife (which makes his song “It’s a Man’s World” take on a different light)… I can no longer read Seuss the same way, does it mean we should tell the world and ensure children today no longer read Seuss books? The value and positive effect they had on me is substantial and I’m sure for many others too so it is hard for me to dismiss, or is that just nostalgia talking? Many would argue that I should banish Seuss’s work from my life and make it clear but I do believe that people can make up for some mistakes. Not only that, the effect is there, it’s done and I can’t undo the benefit they had on me growing up, they encouraged my imagination, encouraged thought, literacy and much more.
He did redeem himself in later years by writing books with strong moral and ethical stances, but it’s still hard to erase these images from your mind. Of course people can make mistakes, and people were certainly more ignorant then (the western view of Asian and African according to cinema at the time is all you need to see this) It is deeply uncomfortable all the same.
Another famous children’s entertainer Walt Disney has often been reported as racist, particularly towards Jews. Should people stop enjoying Disney films due to one man’s anti-Semitism? Guilt by association is tricky, particularly if people don’t know about it. Ignorance is an excuse here, I don’t expect everyone to make a list of their favourite cultural icons and search for anything dubious in their past.
John Wayne, all American hero of the Western Cinema said out-right racist comments in 1971. I loved his films as a kid, and he said “I believe in white supremacy” If he wasn’t dead, he’d be dead to me. I certainly can’t watch another John Wayne film, even for kitschy nostalgic reasons.
I don’t usually put actors on a high pedestal in the sense of great people, but the Mad Max films had a huge influence on me and Mel Gibson’s’ infamous anti-Semitic comments are well known, did ruin the image somewhat. But that’s just him, not the films, nor the filmmakers, he is however the main character and therefore does the represent those films.
I grew up loving heavy metal, as a kid I didn’t see the often subtly white supremacist nature of some of the music, then Phil Anselmo the singer of one of my favourite bands Pantera famously said a lot of dodgy things, mostly they could be shrugged off until his recent “sieg heil” at a show. He attempted to explain it away, a joke, I was drunk and so on. I have made plenty of off colour jokes in my time, but never done that.
As an atheist, one thing that has challenged me is much of the jazz musicians I admire are strongly Christian and some of my favourite music ever made was in the name of God, but I can disconnect myself from this mostly. One of the modern greats of free jazz is Charles Gayle, famously he was living on the streets of New York for many years until German Bassist Peter Kowald discovered him and arranged gigs and releases for him, Gayle is a fundamentalist Christian and has come out saying some things that are homophobic, his religious beliefs didn’t bother me before, but now…
The list goes on, and I’m sure most of you have someone you admired who turned out to be racist or sexist or homophobic or beats their partners, remember that one of Britain’s most loved entertainers was Jimmy Saville, one of the most prolific paedophiles in history. I’m sure many of my heroes who are long dead are also guilty of other things, and I almost don’t want to know but it offends me that I could admire a person’s art and they have committed acts which I am ethically and morally opposed to. Maybe I should know, maybe I should seek to know.
Some people can disconnect these things easily, I’ve spoken to others about James Brown and they can dismiss it and continue to enjoy his music, or people may watch Mike Tyson in a film and say “He served his time, we should allow people a second chance” No, not when it comes to rape. Others may say that they listen to the music or watch the films as some kind of cultural interest, that people “like that” made these films is interesting, everyone has that one right wing friend who says things that you really disagree with but you just can’t find the guts to block them on Facebook.
Were Seuss’s offences bad enough that I now view him differently? Yes because he was supposed to be the moral bastion. Were his offences bad enough I think others should stop reading his books? I’m not sure, I’ll let you decide because many of his books unquestionably have strong moral messages and no trace of racism, many were pro-earth, pro-diversity in their own way, maybe making up for his past. That’s for each person to judge on their own. I would actively tell people what I think about Mike Tyson or James Brown, I do feel obliged to do the same with Dr Seuss even if I still personally love his books.