I remember a bit more about the mechanics of choosing our “role models” than Erin does. I know that we were sent to the library with the specific direction to ask the librarian for “biographies” (probably a new word for us), and that the biographies we chose would eventually lead to a presentation in front of the class about our subject. Each subject could be assigned to only one student, leading to a girl-fight over angelic white ladies with gender-appropriate careers (the most popular being Florence Nightingale), and a boy-fight over assorted sports heroes. But for me, the most memorable aspect of the assignment is one that just barely glances Erin’s memory: we were to come to school dressed in costume as our new role models. Both props and costumes were allowed, but the costumes were expected to represent something worn in a scene from the book.
For some kids this meant frilly dresses or baseball uniforms. Initially I thought the assignment would be no problem for me. My biography focused at least a third of its pages on my subject’s childhood, so my mom and I planned a costume with a simple pink skirt and white button-up shirt – something someone might sew at home for a little girl in the 50’s. I would carry a babydoll and wear my hair in braided pigtails. Soon, though, I learned that Mrs. Busy Street (or perhaps Not-Tina-Turner – we aren’t positive) was skeptical of my ability to fully embody my role model. When I told her about my choice, she snickered uncomfortably.
“I’m not sure about this book, Sharon,” she said in an attempt to cast doubt on my project. “I— I think it might be too old for you.” (For the record, this was true. But it isn’t as though I’d never read a long book or a tough book before. And it came from our own library! The elementary school library!) I talked her out of this assumption and she tried a different track, this time closer to the truth: “Well, it’s just that it’s going to be hard for you to really come dressed as your subject.”
No it isn’t, I thought. I already have my outfit all planned out! “Don’t worry, Mrs. BusyStreet! I already talked to my mom and I’m going to dress like her as a kid. I won’t have to wear a fancy dress like the one on the cover.”
I was NOT getting the point. But for whatever reason, the teacher chose to back down and let me have my choice – likely because not doing so, being honest about her feelings, would have revealed something about her that most people at our school kept carefully hidden beneath the surface: that she was basically afraid of difference.
You see, while Melissa and Natalie and Rachel and the like fought over Lottie Moon and Florence Nightingale, I had chosen a biography from the bottom of the stack provided by the librarian. For my report, I would read about Mahalia Jackson: gospel singer, Civil Rights Activist, and – more importantly for my teacher – a woman of color.
Much like Erin in her post about the Jesse Jackson book fair debacle, I have no idea what drove my choice. I can speculate, of course. As Erin has said, this was an assignment about role models – about the people we wanted to be. In a sense, we were expected not only to study our subjects, but to embody them for our report. We’ve mentioned before that as kids we were both performers – fascinated by the sounds of our voices in our throats. Mahalia’s story was told as the story of the strength of a voice. Much of the last portion of the bio focused on her songs at Civil Rights rallies. When she opened her throat, people sat still and listened. I wanted nothing so much as to have a powerful voice.
But my reasons for identifying with the famous gospel singer were completely overcome by my teacher’s apparent concern that I could not possibly come to school “dressed as” Mahalia Jackson because, well, she was just too different from me – i.e., our racial designations were too different, and she was therefore an inappropriate icon.
This is another of those times when I credit my mother’s sanity for saving my childhood. She didn’t blink twice when I told her that the teacher had kind of snickered at my choice and asked her why everyone said I couldn’t pick Mahalia. Her explanation was clear and simple: “Sharon, there is nothing wrong with you wanting to have Mahalia Jackson as a role model. It’s not like I’m going to send you to school in blackface.” Of course, explaining to me what “blackface” meant – and why it was horrible – took a little bit longer, but I eventually understood that my teacher’s unwillingness to address their objections to me directly had to do with their general unwillingness to talk to us about race at all – a topic that rarely came up in a school that was probably more than 90% white, and upper-middle-class to boot.
This post is already getting a bit long, and is well overdue, but there are some issues here I’m hoping we can revisit sometime in the future. In fact, I’m hoping Erin will agree to do a liveblogging type of thing with me on the issue of race in our childhoods, because I think we could uncover some interesting items buried under some very pale rocks.