Erin

Posts Tagged ‘performances’

“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.
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Performing

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 3:03 pm

The camcorder and the cassette recorder (the black one had an orange “Record” button–and I would swear in a court of law that there was a plastic red and white one, too) remind me how prominently performances figured in our playtime.  Sometimes we’d require our ever-so-patient parents to watch or listen to the performances, and sometimes they were just for us.  I mentioned before how much I loved the feeling of spoken words and phrases…though I don’t remember consciously articulating that thought as a kid, my memories of performing–radio plays, church skits, mugging for the video camera–are thoroughly visceral.  Embodying a character (my over-the-top acting notwithstanding), feeling a different voice come out of my mouth, experiencing physical expression in an unfamiliar way: this is what stands out to me now as pleasurable.  This, and the making things up part, of course.  I love that Sharon remembers this as my not being afraid to be silly–because while I think this is absolutely true (I’ve always been a little on the side of ridiculous), it’s something I never really conceptualized in that way, because (at that young age, anyway) it never occurred to me as something to be afraid of.  Being larger-than-life felt good, and though I actually was shy around people I didn’t know well, I reveled in the opportunities to perform when they arose–or better, when we created them.

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