Breaking up with your favorite racist childhood classic books

A good article analyzes the strong cultural reactions to voluntary changes made by the companies that manage the “Potato Head” toy line and the books of Dr. Seuss. Cries of “censorship” and “cancel culture” rallied passionate citizens who defended their nostalgic memories of childhood and sought targets for their rage.

I just read an article on new allegations against Peter Yarrow. I knew that he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14yo, though I didn’t remember he was pardoned by Jimmy Carter.

When I teach Shakespeare I emphasize that yes, he was a product of his times, but that his work is relevant because sometimes his work conforms to the conventions of those times, and sometimes he challenges or overturns those conventions.

It is possible for people to change, and Yarrow has worked for decades on anti-bullying and in defense of Soviet Jews. Still, it’s still very hard to reconcile Yarrow’s actions with my childhood memories of “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”

It’s so much easier to “cancel” and look elsewhere. (I think this is why we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in Fred Rogers, Bob Ross, Robin Williams, Steve Irwin, Shari Lewis — we know enough about them, and they’re dead, so they can be safe harbors for our nostalgia.)

When you point out racism in a beloved artifact of childhood, people can feel personally attacked. Children’s books are signposts not just to our childhoods but to the formation of our selves. Examining them critically can feel akin to a violation, because they reside deep at the core of the “me” in each of us.

Those who work themselves into hysterics over Dr. Seuss or Mr. Potato Head nurture this feeling of being personally attacked. They amplify nostalgia for an allegedly “innocent” childhood, when Dr. Seuss was not political, life was simpler and America was “great.” This is what Svetlana Boym calls restorative nostalgia — a longing for a unified, uncomplicated past, an “enchanted world with clear borders and values.” However, as Boym warns, “Only false memories can be totally recalled.”

We instead need what Boym calls reflective nostalgia, which dwells in memory’s imperfections, exploring the ambivalence, the complexity, the pain that restorative nostalgia strives to erase. We must show people that deeply felt memories do not authorize indifference toward others and do not remove the need for reflection. We must ask, “What if something we loved as children might cause harm today?” Indeed, “What if it caused harm then?” What would it mean to acknowledge pain? — Valerie Strauss, Washington Post

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