Themes of Race in Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham”

An analysis of “Green Eggs and Ham” and how themes of race and the civil rights movement appear in this work.

Most people who read Dr. Seuss stories to their children do not realize that Dr. Seuss was a politically-minded man who felt that a story should not only entertain the children hearing them, but also educated the parents who are reading them. In his 1960 sensation, Green Eggs and Ham, Seuss (a.k.a. Theodor Seuss Geisel) appears to be tackling the issues of race that were a top priority and daily struggle of the people of that era.

The Characters

Our first glimpse into the book reveals a young, trendy character racing back and forth, proudly proclaiming his name, “Sam-I-Am”. In the background we see a frustrated old curmudgeon, reading a paper and angered by the hustling and bustling of the impossible Sam-I-Am.

The old curmudgeon who remains unnamed throughout the story represents the generation that parented the flower children and beatniks of the fifties and sixties. This older generation often appeared to be set in their ways and hesitant to accept change. The story itself is timeless: the older, more conservative generation represents a generation afraid to try anything new or different. The lack of a name seems to be indicating a creature that is not unique or not aware of self—he is unworthy of being named because there is nothing about him that separates him from anyone else.

Sam-I-Am on the other hand, represents the new generation. The very fact that he is named and that I proclaims himself an “I-Am” signifies a creature demanding notice and who is self-actualized (a common theme of the youth movement of the sixties.) Sam-I-Am is always on the go and eager to implement change. He lets everyone he meets know who he is and invites even the namless to try something new.

Green Eggs as Black Equality?

So what is this malicious change the incouragable Sam-I-Am is trying to establish? He wants the old curmudgeon to eat green eggs and ham. This is a ludicrous request. After all, anyone who has ever had the displeasure of cleaning out a refridgerator knows that when eggs and ham turn green that it is not a good thing. You certainly do not eat them; you throw them out.

But Sam-I-Am is not throwing them out. He has embraced them and has come to love them and is now trying to persuade others to include green eggs and ham in their daily routine. The curmudgeon refuses to have anything to do with it, though and tries to turn away from Sam. Sam does not back off, though, and we find ourselves with sixty-two pages of adventure as Sam chases the curmudgeon desperately trying to find any situation that the older creature would be willing to try this new idea.

Alas! The curmudgeon, chased into a pond and fed up, gives in to the relentless requests and tries the insane concoction with the stern warning that he will not like them only to discover that not only does he like them, he loves them! He would eat them anywhere and everywhere. He would eat them with any other kind of creature: suddenly the idea of eating with a fox or in a box does not seem so ludicrous.

Now, imagine the green eggs and ham were not green eggs and ham, but a friendship with a black man. And imagine that the fox is not a fox, but an American Indian and that the box is actually a Japanese home. Would the older generation be willing to try these things? Absolutely not, but Sam and the youth movement were confident that the world would be a better place if all of these cultures could come together. They relentlessly pressed the issue: through sit-ins and love-ins, through protests, through setting examples, and through persistent public discourse.

Relevance for Today

Perhaps the curmudgeon says it best when he states, “I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-Am!”

More than forty years later we have come a long way… yet we still have a long way to go in the efforts of racial equality. Much of our fears stem from senseless xenophobia as we find our culture clashing against others. Often, we are expected to try something as ridiculous as eating green eggs and ham, and we automatically assume that we will not like them. We reject them without even trying them… but imagine the possibilities if we did!

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3 Comments
  1. Jamie
    Posted March 15, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    I really never thought of this children’s book in this way! it makes more sense than i thought possible. this is great for my research paper! thank you

    senior~ ‘07

  2. Heather
    Posted February 14, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    I recently did an in-class rhetorical analysis of Green Eggs and Ham using Cluster Theory and came to the very same conclusion that there are race issues in the story. I saw Sam-I-am as the federal government though, and the nameless figure as all those who tried to resist desegregation. I tied a direct link between the Rosa Parks controversy and the many references to transportation too. I felt so adamantly that I was on to something that I’ve decided to write my semester long paper on the children’s story. I’ll be referencing your website in my bibliography. Thanks!

  3. molly
    Posted September 20, 2010 at 5:32 am

    this is a bit strange, i just thought that it was a book about not wanting to eat green eggs and ham, now i have seen the light, thankyou for showing me a new way of life!!!

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