The Sneetches was my favorite Dr. Seuss story growing up. I loved it with the “just cause” kind of passion one unapologetically possesses as a kid. It always just made sense. It always just felt like “of course!”
My mom is from Tanzania and very Tanzanian. My dad is from Louisiana, heritage-wise by way of the Vikings, Normandy, England, and Ireland. My sisters (three of them) were all born in Tanzania and I was born in Toronto, and all four of us were raised in Canada.
When finally we settled here in Los Angeles and I ventured out onto the schoolyard, I was baffled by the visually distinct separations I saw. People seemed to be hanging out with their “own kind” and it was honestly one of the most confusing things I’ve ever seen. It made such an impression that I’ve been attempting to figure out what the heck I was looking at ever since.
The differences in our family were always what made us stronger. My dad brought my mom a love of books, classical music, and Westerns. My mom brought my dad a culture filled with acceptance and her own unfiltered honesty and fiercely passionate loyalty and love.
My parents instinctively taught us to love one another regardless and with regard, whether we were upset with each other, disagreed, or thought we knew better. We sang folk songs in the car on road-trips and drove out to a farm every winter to cut down the perfect Christmas tree; there was cozy bedtime reading every night and the absolute best home-cooked meals every day. My sisters and I are all incredibly close and my mom and dad loved each other for over 46 years until he passed on a year and a half ago, and quite frankly the love that lived between them is still a very real presence in all of our lives today.
Back to the lands of the good Dr. Seuss: In The Sneetches there are those with stars on their bellies and the ones with no stars. The ones with stars are snooty and feel better, more entitled than the ones without, and the ones without feel their starlessness mightily.
In the story, a man comes to town with a fancy contraption and for a few bucks each he offers to help out the Sneetches without stars. They are thrilled, pay up, funnel through the machine and come out changed Sneetches, now matching their more bedazzled counterparts. The Sneetches with stars at the outset are not having it; they still feel like the “best Sneetches on the beaches” and, funnily enough, that friendly gent has just the solution for them: For a few more bucks each he can remove their now out-of-style stars and confirm them to be truly and still the best.
They’re thrilled, bip through the machine, and as you can imagine (or have indeed read in your own cozy bedtime shows) a melee ensues. The fellow leaves with a cart overflowing with cash and the two groups of Sneetches are left to sort out their muddled hierarchy, as he laughingly rides out of town saying indeed they’ll never learn, but (surprise twist!) they do. I recommend it.
As is true for many of us, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I was educated. It was helpful. I’ve seen the thing that lies between so many and the world, between so many on one side and so many on the other. I’ve seen it, but oddly from above and outside as though in a dream. I’ve seen it, but also know it’s not there. Also know it’s something that can be looked through, looked around, until it melts away from inattention.
Coates’ book helped me see and understand the very personal nature of it, the fear, perpetual separateness and togetherness of it, the parental mandate to pass it down, to teach it, to protect. I appreciated his anger and his vulnerability in expressing it.
What if one day all of us woke up and — like the Sneetches — couldn’t tell each other apart? What I would like to see in this world is more of the love that lives still, invisibly, between my parents, between them and us, between my sisters and myself. It is boundless, it is freeing, it is fearless, and it feels just like “of course!” We are all different, but in ways we couldn’t possibly know on sight.
When true connection happens, when true love happens, stories are born, creativity abounds, and we can then go on to bridge other gaps and learn the strength and truth of our unity in new ways.
The book world and its outer appearance is only a symptom. Our inner perspectives shape it. If we can shift those and recognize that our exteriors and attractions far from fundamentally dictate universal separation or impassable difference; if we can look beyond to our individual connections and resonance, then diversity as a word might just lose all meaning, as it simply will be.
Erica Luttrell is the general manager at Chevalier’s Books in the Larchmont Village area of Los Angeles. She has been an actor all her life and a bookseller for 13 years. She currently serves on ABA’s Booksellers Advisory Council.