As we are learning with eye-opening regularity, a hidden hurt can lurk in even the most seemingly benign classics.
To some, Dr. Seuss may simply be a beloved children’s author and illustrator. But imagine for a moment an Asian-American kid strolling through the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield is suddenly confronted with a mural from Seuss’ “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,’’ featuring an image of a Chinese character that plays into an archaic stereotype.
The day at the museum could go sour in a hurry for that kid — just as the cultural experiences of countless others have been soured when they come across images or words created or written in a time when artists and writers thought little of giving offense to nonwhite people, gay people, or women, if they thought of their feelings at all.
These are obviously different times. After protests by three authors, two of them Asian-American, over what they called a “jarring racial stereotype of a Chinese man, who is depicted with chopsticks, a pointed hat, and slanted slit eyes,’’ the Springfield museum decided to remove the objectionable mural and replace it with an image from one of Seuss’ later works. (This came after the reputation of Dr. Seuss — real name: Theodor Geisel — had already been buffeted by scrutiny of his harshly anti-Japanese editorial cartoons from the World War II years.)
But even if the current controversy is defused, it registers as another illuminating collision between outmoded sensibilities and new sensitivities, an ongoing clash between the present and the past that has generated sparks in the realms of theater, literature, art, film, and television. It’s a noisy and messy process — one in which you can hear the culture talking to, and wrestling with, itself.
Voices from the Asian-American, Latino, African-American, and LGBTQ communities are growing more assertive when it comes to challenging stereotyping, underrepresentation, and cultural appropriation.
That kind of pushback has, in turn, spawned a counterreaction from critics who decry what they see as censorship and overreaching political correctness. Such counterreaction almost certainly helped contribute to the presidential election of one Donald J. Trump.
Flashpoints abound. Three years ago, a production at Newton North High School of the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ generated a storm of controversy over the show’s depiction of Chinese characters (and their faux-Chinese leader) who kidnap young white women for the purposes of sex trafficking. Two years ago, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was forced to alter plans for “Kimono Wednesdays’’ — which would have allowed visitors to don kimonos and pose in front of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise,’’ a painting of the artist’s wife in a blonde wig and a red kimono — amid complaints the museum was perpetuating racist stereotypes and engaging in the kind of exoticization of Asian culture that’s known as “Orientalism.’’
It’s highly doubtful that most of those involved in such inflammatory episodes deliberately set out to give offense. More often than not, tone-deafness rather than outright malice is at work. But that distinction doesn’t lessen the hurt for people who are being maligned.
Of course, the dangers of outright censorship, driven by a zeal to sanitize, need to be avoided. You may believe, as I do, that efforts to ban the teaching of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’’ because of its frequent use of a racial epithet are misguided. But can you really discount the notion that reading that epithet over and over again (it’s in Twain’s novel more than 200 times, according to a 2011 article by New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani) is going to cause pain to an African-American high school student?
When I was a kid, I devoured a tattered paperback copy of “The Kid From Tomkinsville,’’ a novel by Harvard-educated John R. Tunis that was first published in 1940. Young as I was, I remember being taken aback by a passage in which Tunis describes how glad the title figure, a young baseball player named Roy Tucker, is to be back with his team, “everyone down to little Snow White, the pickaninny who was their mascot and batboy in Clearwater.’’ I wonder how it feels to read that passage if you’re a baseball-loving black kid?
I suspect the African-American writer Gayle Pemberton would have a pretty good idea. In her essay “Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey?’’ Pemberton writes of her reaction to a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window’’ when James Stewart’s character calls a friend for help but gets the friend’s African-American baby sitter. The baby sitter’s voice trills through the phone in what Pemberton accurately calls “a vaudevillian black accent,’’ asking: “Do he have your number, Mr. Jeffrey?’’ Pemberton notes that within “the white world of ‘Rear Window,’ ” blackness is both stereotyped and invisible — “it didn’t even have a face.’’
Today, nonwhite communities are insisting that the face presented by art correspond to reality rather than stereotype — not an unreasonable demand when you consider how many distorted images of them can be glimpsed through the rear window of American culture.