“It’s not like I’m going to send you to school in blackface”

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2010 at 8:40 pm
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.
  1. Sharon: You’ll HAVE to include me on that interchange-live-blogging thing, because girl, I could give you some insight from a generation earlier than yours…like the time I was riding a train with my “Blue Bird/Campfire Girls” troop. It was a short trip, just for the experience of a train ride. I walked on my own through the cars, and then found a comfortable spot to sit and watch the world go by. The other people on the train looked at me VERY oddly, and only then did I notice that they were all black faces. I had wandered on to the “Jim Crow” car. It was no problem for me, because my parents had never told me about any such idiotic thing, so I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be there until a white conductor saw me through the window, quickly came in and ushered me out. I found out later from my Mom what I had done “wrong.” Also, at the drinking fountains in public places, such as grocery stores and the like, there were always two fountains next to each other – one was usually slightly taller than the other – that was the one with the white spigot nozzle – and it dispensed cooled water; the other had a black spigot nozzle, was slightly shorter (so adults would have to bend lower, I assume), and dispensed only room temperature water. I never knew the difference, and usually drank from whatever fountain was available. I got a lot of odd looks from a lot of white people, and some indulgent, puzzled, and/or mystified looks from the black people. I say “indulgent” because these people looked on me fondly as some ignorant white “baby” girl who didn’t know any better, and it wasn’t up to them to explain it to me. (LOL) So many incidents like this happened to me and my family in the 50’s and 60’s; this even though both my parents grew up in families that absolutely did NOT know any “better” or any differently (especially my Mom’s)…but my parents’ generation did come out of that background with profoundly different ideas about how the world should be. I don’t know how, both having grown up in deep Southern, all-white environments; but I suspect it had a lot to do with their growth in understanding and faith in God; and that God truly shows “no partiality.” Interestingly enough, those of their parents who lived into the civil rights era were changed by it, and came to look upon racial differences/sameness in a totally new light.

    My Mom was in the early 60’s, before we moved to Connecticut, the President of Beaumont’s Christian inter-faith group known as “Church Women United.” The problem at that time was that they weren’t exactly “united” because Mom was President of the white womens’ group, and a wonderful woman by the name of Mrs. (?) Smith was President of the black group by the same name. The two of them got together and decided that there was no reason to be divided, since “we are all one in Christ Jesus,” and set about integrating the two groups. Well, you would have thought the world was coming to an end. Mother got hate mail, death threats, and anonymous phone calls for a long time…these from supposedly “Christian” women. (She never told me about that part until years later.) Takes all kinds, I guess, but some I could do without. As a side-line, Mrs. Smith, was the mother of “Bubba” Smith, a great College footballer, and NFL star player, who played for the (Baltimore) Colts, then the Raiders, then the Oilers before retiring, and becoming a bit-part actor. He was particularly huge for the time, and a wonderful man – I still think his mother was more remarkable, because even earlier in the civil-rights era, she managed to break a color barrier (along with my Mom). Bubba was the first black man drafted into a Pro team, who actually played in a game (Ernie Davis died before he could), so he did some barrier breaking himself.

    Well, enough of this…maybe I’ll blog something soon on the same subject…or did I just do that? 🙂 Love ya! Paula

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