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Dr. Seuss — architect of social change.

AS A CHILD GROWING UP in a "Christian,'' white community in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, I had many questions about the segregationist teachings of my elders. They all said that white people and black people should be separated.

Some of the children voiced disagreement, but their parents were Yankees an)Avay, and they talked sort of funny and weren't much to be listened to. And the grown-ups I was around knew so much that I figured they were probably right when they told me I would understand when I got older.

I remember segregation as a regular topic of Bible study at the segregated YMCA I attended, as well as at school and elsewhere; schools in some places had been integrated; they might be integrated in Georgia soon. The more crass children would sometimes talk about "niggers," but they were always corrected by the Bible class leaders — "colored people" was the appropriate term, since that other word was offensive to colored people. But the sons of Yankees who suggested that colored boys should be allowed to join the YMCA — that was simply unchristian!

Those stars weren't so big. They were really so small You might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.

Now, I'm not talking about Klan types here — my parents and teachers universally abhorred the Klan and its violence. They were very specific in saying that white people were not better than black people, just different.

"If God made us so distinctively different - He must have a reason," explained the leader of a Y Bible-study class. "Just as crows and swans didn't live and work together, neither should black and white people.''

When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball, Could a Plain-Belly get in the game . . . ? Not at all. You only could play if your bellies had stars And the Plain-Belly children had none upon thars.

"What about hair and eye color?" I asked the Y leader, a sincere question, not a sarcastic one. "Did God give some people brown hair, others blonde because He wanted us to know we should be separate?''

No, no, no,'' he exclaimed with a somewhat confused but amused expression. "That's different. You'll understand when you get older.

Not completely satisfied, I accepted what he and the other grown-ups said. After all, white and black people were segregated, not only in my hometown, but on television and just about everywhere I saw except professional sports. And grown-ups knew about such things. I was a small child and was still learning, from grownups and from books.

When the Star-Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts, They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches. They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches. They kept them away. Never let them come near And that's how they treated them year after year.

My favorite writer was Dr. Seuss. He had written Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat. (My mother occasionally added a bit of green food coloring to my scrambled eggs so I could eat green eggs and ham.) I loved reading, and my elders encouraged it: great learning comes from books, they said, you will learn a lot from them. So supportive of reading were my parents that, while they normally would only buy things for my five siblings or me at birthdays and Christmas, they would buy any book we wanted if we promised to read it.

Then, one day, someone gave me a new book: The Sneetches and Other Stories. 1 was thrilled — it was by Dr. Seuss! This book, particularly its title story, would have a profound and lasting impact on my life.

The Sneetches, segregated according to whether or not they had stars on their bellies, bore a remarkable resemblance to my ovina community. The ones vwth stars were like white people where I lived, the ones without stars were like black people. Young though I was, I realized that "separate but equal" was far from equal — the black children (and grown-ups) clearly had less than the whites with whom I interacted.
But the Plain-Belly Sneetches were offered a way out of their predicament. A fellow with the Seussian name Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrived with a machine which, for three dollars, would add a star to your belly! The Plain-Belly Sneetches paid McBean the money and soon they had "stars upon thars!"

Then they yelled at the ones who had stars at the start, "We're exactly like you! You can't tell us apart. We're all just the same, now, you snooty old
smarties! And now we can go to your frankfurter parties!
"Good grief!" groaned the ones who had stars
at the first. ' 'We're still the best Sneetches and they are
the worst. But, now, how in the world will we know, they
all frowned, "If which kind is what, or the other way round?'.'
This was fascinating. We knew we were better because we had stars. We're still better, but how can we tell? Hmmm . . .

McBean was not in this for societal good He had another machine which would remove the stars — for ten dollars each. The original Star-Belly Sneetches, anxious to maintain their superiority, paid up without hesitation

Then, with snoots in the air, they paraded about   j And they opened their beaks and they let out a shout,
' 'We know who is who! Now there isn't a doubt.    I The best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without!''
Then, of course, those with stars all got frightfully mad. To be wearing a star now was frightfully bad. Then, of course, old Sylvester McMonkey McBean Invited them into his Star-Off Machine.

Then, of course from THEN on, as you probably
guess. Things really got into a horrible mess.
Sneetches were dashing into one machine or the other as quickly as they could pile up the money next to McBean. It lasted all day long.
They kept paying money. They kept running
through Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew Whether this one was that one ... or that one
was this one Or which one was which one ... or what one
was who.

I did not know the word ' 'analogy.'' I did not even understand that Theodor Seuss Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) probably meant for me to identify with the Sneetches. But I did wonder what would happen if all the people in my community changed colors around and around and around. And I understood that Dr. Seuss was saying that you should not judge people by so trivial a thing as whether they had stars upon thars — or black skin or white. And it was in a book!

The Sneetches eventually gave the enterprising capitalist McBean all of their money, at which point he drove away with the comment, ' 'They never will learn./No. You can't teach a Sneetch."

But McBean was quite wrong.
I'm quite happy to say That the Sneetches got really
I quite smart on that day, The day they decided that
Sneetches are Sneetches And no kind of Sneetch is the
best on the beaches. That day, all the Sneetches
forgot about stars And whether they had
one, or not, upon thars.

If Sneetches are Sneetches, I thought, then people are people — and no kind of people are the best on the beaches! Maybe the grown-ups were wrong. Clearly either the grown-ups were wrong or the book was wrong.

I realized that I would
have to decide which
was right, that the
grown-ups might be
wrong, that I might
understand something better than they.

The Sneetches was published in 1961. In the civil rights movement, it hardly ranks on a par with Brown v. Board of Education or the Selma march. But in my life, that book hastened my conversion from a child of segregation to a civil rights advocate who believes that the removal of legal segregation is the best thing to happen to white people in the American South in my lifetime.

As I look over some of Dr. Seuss's other books, I expect that they have the same kinds of impacts on other children; The Lorax, which calls for protection of the environment and personal responsibility for it; The Butter Battle Book, which examines the arms race between two cultures which dispute which side of your bread you should put the butter on and concludes with both sides threatening the existence of the planet while the child wonders why.

Dr. Seuss — architect of social change. Perhaps if all our politicians were required to read his" collected works prior to taking office . .