To the Place / I Belong

Currently, I’m having an issue with John Denver. At night, almost every night, his country hymns are the ones that lull my 7- and 4-year-olds to sleep.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things, the musical bedtime selections of our kids is not a big deal. And I acknowledge that overall, our kids’ tastes in music are quite varied. Like in the car, where they clamor for ’90s French rapper MC Solaar. Or in the kitchen, where they hang on for dear life to keep up with the rollercoaster that is Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. U2, Stevie Wonder, The Who, they dig all that.

But when you’re a mother of color trying to instill some sense of black culture in your kids — and the shiny meadows and shinier blonde mops all around you make you feel you’re already living a John Denver song — hearing those opening twangs about the Shenandoah River night after night after night can feel like a losing battle. I’m not sure how the CD, which belongs to my husband, first got into the rotation. But at bedtime, as their eyelids flutter and finally sink into sleep, there is only one voice Sky and Rose want to hear: the voice that sings Rocky Mountain High, Sunshine on My Shoulder and of course, the top grosser of all Denver’s hits, the ballad that gets mentioned with John Lennon’s Imagine and Aretha Franklin’s Respect as one of the most influential songs of the 20th century: Take Me Home, Country Roads. Attempts to slip in the occasional Erykah Badu or Harry Belafonte are futile.

“I like how his voice sounds singing with the music,” Sky explained the other night. “It sounds, you know, nice.” And part of me can’t argue with that four-star review — especially since I made a stink to Brian about the last CD that was in heavy rotation, Led Zeppelin II (remastered). I’m sure Sky and Rose have no idea what Robert Plant is talking about, but there’s something weird about peeking in on children bathed in the glow of a Hello Kitty lamp and hearing “Squeeze me baby/ ‘Til the juice runs down my leg” waft through the crack in the door.

Now, some have called Denver’s songs soaring melodies of hope. I would call them syrupy odes to romantic love and an idyllic notion of America that doesn’t really exist. I would not be alone in that assessment. In 2007, in the midst of an apparently heated battle over whether to declare Rocky Mountain High the state song of Colorado, a Denver Post columnist opined, “Rocky Mountain High deserves its place in Colorado . . . in Muzak form on supermarket speakers or during a marathon Time Life infomercial hosted by Air Supply.” Of course with music, it’s all relative. If Ray Charles and legendary ska band The Maytals saw fit to record covers of Take Me Home, there’s gotta be something to it that I’m missing.

And as I write this, I’m actually recalling another heated debate that took place right around 2007, in a cell phone conversation between Brian and me. I’ll attribute some of the things I said, and the conviction with which I said them, to the hormones coursing through my body during my second pregnancy. But I distinctly remember screaming about the importance of our kids understanding the revolutionary sound of A Tribe Called Quest. And I remember Brian saying something about hip-hop consisting of a lot of noise and only a very little bit of actual music.

The other day, as I heard Denver’s relentless major chords drift once again through the hall, I decided to try an experiment. I started Googling “John Denver” and “African-American,” just to see if there was any possible intersection of Denver and black culture other than in this house.

It didn’t take me long to find it.

In the 1970s, after Denver married first wife Annie Martell, the couple had trouble conceiving. They adopted a son, Zachary John, and later a daughter, Anna Kate, who Denver would later say were “meant to be theirs.” The little boy who inspired Denver’s  Zachary and Jennifer and A Baby Just Like You (which he wrote for Frank Sinatra), was black. If the Internet is to be believed, he is now in his 30s, happily married, and still lives in Colorado.

In an interview he gave to People in 1979, Denver talked about his family. He made no mention of race, but he made his feelings about fatherhood very clear. “I’ll tell you the best thing about me. I’m some guy’s dad; I’m some little gal’s dad. When I die, Zachary John and Anna Kate’s father, boy, that’s enough for me to be remembered by. That’s more than enough.”

Well I’ll be damned. There’s an idyllic notion of America, and I want to sing along.

Beautiful Struggler

Sometimes, out of nowhere, a person comes into your life and offers you the gift of sight. Somebody you didn’t imagine could exist one day appears the next day, and sends a column of light into the settled passages of your mind, showing you something you needed to see. Not by anything they say or do, but by their way of being in the world.

I made a new friend this week. His name is Leon Mobley, and he plays the drums.

You might not have ever heard of Leon, but some of the people he’s played with in his 40-year career may ring a bell: Stevie Wonder. Michael Jackson. Mick Jagger. The Marley sons, the Fugees and the rapper Nas. A few years ago, Leon got a phone call from a friend to come play at the United Nations in New York for a fundraiser. It was Madonna. When Leon was 7, a friend of his uncle’s came by one night and scooped him up to play drums for a show in Boston. That was Duke Ellington.

@scottmitchellphotography

How did the path of a world-traveling percussionist cross the path of a mom whose orbit often includes the town gas station, family day care and the nearby Target? They crossed because, incredibly, the place I reluctantly call home is also a place Leon calls home. Not two weeks ago, I sat on a train bound for a weekend in New York, feeling every Amtrak mile that put distance between me and the racial vacuum of this awfully lovely town. But this very same place — this land of saltbox barns and driveways that disappear into Yankee estates unseen — was drawing Leon closer. He couldn’t wait to get here.

Leon doesn’t own a house here and he wasn’t born here. He grew up in a housing project in Boston. Where he lived, a mayonnaise sandwich was a meal and the eggs at breakfast time came powdered, from a can. But in 1970, when he was in the third grade, Leon made a little piece of Boston history: He entered METCO, a newly established and voluntary school desegregation program between Boston and its ring of affluent suburbs. Waking up before the sun and taking the subway to a waiting station wagon that substituted for a bus, he was transported from his cramped high-rise to Dover, Mass., the country town next door to ours, the place where my husband and his father and four fathers before that were born. Little Leon Mobley, all of 8 years old, became the first student from METCO ever to attend Dover’s elementary school. And last week, for an entire week, he returned to that school to teach traditions of West African drumming and culture.

I wrote about Leon’s homecoming for a story in last week’s Boston Globe. Not everything from our two-hour phone conversation made it into print. For example, there was the time a kid in middle school walked up to him and said, “The only good nigger is a dead nigger.”

It’s strange to be a 41-year-old woman who writes about race and has lived here for 10 years, but who still feels paralyzed in the face of situations that are much, much tamer than that. Leon was just a kid. I’m sure he felt hurt, but he definitely wasn’t stunned. “I looked at him and said, ‘You need to kill somebody, you kill me,’ ” he said.

When I finally met Leon, it was at a suburban hotel off 95 in Newton, not far from here. The master drummer who has played at Wembley and hung out with Mandela had an audience of 35, give or take, in a lounge area outside a basement-level restaurant. When he started to drum, it looked like there wasn’t anywhere else in the world he wanted to be. Two days later, inside the school auditorium where he performed with school kids, he was greeted with the kind of deafening screams usually reserved for Justin Bieber. It was an amazing thing to watch.

It is said that when METCO first started, the program strategically sought out a certain kind of child. They were looking for little survivors, students who could cross from a world of powdered eggs to a world of poached eggs and find some way to hold onto themselves. They were looking for Leon Mobley. There was no diminishing this kid. Every experience he had here — being chased by state cops, being embraced by a local family, being nurtured by teachers or feared by townies  — became fertile soil for his own growth. Deadbolt locks in one place, doors that were never locked in another place? It was all experience. He soaked up every lesson this place had to teach him. “Without Dover,” he once said of his adopted hometown, “there is no Leon Mobley.” There it is right there, that column of light.

I sound like a broken record, I know. But I still have so many questions about this: What is home? Is it history running deep over a few square miles? Is it a census tract with an acceptable threshold of your own kind, or is it the beat you hear in your head no matter where you are? How much of home is the feeling you get, and how much of it is the feeling you make?

Falling Dormant, Waking Up

Note to readers (if this blog still has readers, that is):

Never, ever start a two-part blog post about race and children’s books when you are lost in the tunnels of your very real, very adult racial mid-life crisis. When the school bus driver’s confused stare, just a few seconds long, starts to stay in your mind’s eye for hours. When a row of maple trees might as well be a row of metal bars. When the path you’ve made with another person — every piece you snapped in place together, every willing compromise and good intention — obscures itself. And two things that never stood in the path before, blackness and whiteness, look so big you can’t see if the path continues on the other side.

My intention back in November was to blog about Hazel the Hedgehog, a vintage children’s book in which a brown and spikey hedgehog is banished from the barnyard by a posse of strangely blond farm animals. At a certain point, the mere act of picking up this book used to make Brian and I laugh out loud.

That was part I. Part II was to share a book that is Hazel’s antithesis: Spork, the uplifting tale of a mixed kitchen utensil.

I am going to share it now, here, because it’s a beautiful parable with beautiful pictures, and because Kyo Maclear, the book’s half-Japanese, half-British author, has her own beautiful story to tell about how this book came into being. (You can read about Maclear’s and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s upcoming book, Virginia Wolf, which addresses depression, here).

But as I look at this adorable spork of a child, searching for identity in the silverware drawer, I realize how drawn I am to his parents: the fork father and spoon mother “who thought he was perfect just the way he was.” They look so happy.

Do they argue about balancing Spork’s spoon heritage and fork heritage? If you are made of prongs, can you truly understand a round hollow? And if these utensils are a family, where can they all happily live? Because like much of America (still), drawer organizers tend to be segregated.

When you’ve written a children’s book that has been used as an allegory for everything from transgender identity to the Middle Way in Buddhism, and that educators use to introduce kids to philosophy, you have done something worthwhile. In an interview, Maclear said it took a common camping implement to get at the deeply personal messages she wanted to convey.

“When I conceived of this story, I knew I didn’t want the protagonist to be distinctly human . . . I wanted to avoid the ‘social studies’ approach to talking about these issues, which can become ponderous and joyless,” says Maclear, who lives in Canada with her husband and young daughter. “I definitely didn’t want to make my character purple or some arbitrary mixed color, because I find this trivializes the real historical and cultural experiences of being a person of color.”

When readers meet Spork, Maclear says, they are disarmed. I have no idea if Sky and Rose consciously see their mixed selves when I read this book to them. But I know they root for Spork, and I know more than anything they love how it all ends.

Removed from anxieties about race, class, ethnicity, sexuality or any number of other dividing lines, Maclear says, adults and children suddenly find themselves able to explore what it means to be different, and what it means to belong. “Sometimes,” she says, “we need a new language, and fresh words.”

If there is a better guiding principle when it comes to race, I can’t think of one. Yes, there are deep injustices to battle. There are presidential candidates who have figured out how to divide across color and culture, and there are families still trying to figure out how to love across color and culture . But so many of these things hinge on the stories we tell ourselves, or have told ourselves for too long. Sometimes we need a new language. And fresh words.

Hazel the Hedgehog (part 1)

On the edge of town, beyond the family-run orchard and soccer fields and the house painted the color of candied yams, lies our town dump.

To a city girl, a town dump is a revelation. For years, I lined barrels and blue square bins along the curb of my building for the garbage truck. Here, despite paying some of the highest taxes in the state, people find it second nature to load up the car, decamp from their wooded estates, and haul their trash to a transfer station. They also bond there — with old neighbors; with the newcomers to town; with Billy, the war veteran who lets kids push the hydraulic compactor button and whose late father ran the dump for years. Billy is the historian and long-haired king of this place; my kids love seeing him at the top of the drop-off hill and so do I. Although, since the day a woman stopped to ask me if I knew any other good nannies in the area, I mostly keep to myself.

The dump isn’t just the place where the town brings its garbage. It is also the home of the town swap shop, where people who no longer want their pine dressers or perfectly functioning deluxe gas grills can leave them for others to claim. Furniture, toys, books. At one point, about half of our baby book collection was made up of selections from the swap shop.

That is how Hazel the Hedgehog came into our lives.

Hazel the Hedgehog is one of a series of baby animal board books I scored at the swap shop years ago. By series I mean Bobby the Bunny, Cathy the Calf, Danny the Duck, etc. At the time they seemed like real finds, with a Dick-and-Jane cuteness that would not be denied: Each book was cut in the profile of a particular animal’s shape. I couldn’t wait to bring them home to Sky, who was just 2 then. As it turns out, Hazel the Hedgehog had more in store for us than a bedtime story.

A hedgehog will roll itself into a ball to protect itself against potential predators

Amazon describes Hazel as a book about “recognizing that being different makes one special.” I would describe it as colorstruck and creepy. Picture a bizarrely Aryan collection of animals — white dog, white sheep, white-ish goat and a thoroughly blonde horse — cavorting on a farm. Now picture dark, brown Hazel entering stage left from behind a bush. “Hello, everyone. May I play, too?”

Oh, Hazel. I’m sorry sweetheart, but no, you can’t play with everyone. I’m not sure why your  parents didn’t break that news to you — although I feel your pain, because my parents never broke the news to me.

It’s quite the scene, as the farm animals pull away and huddle on one side of the grass. They turn, look over their shoulders and throw Hazel a collective evil eye I’ve yet to see in another board book meant for infants. In a clear blue sky, the sun suddenly stops smiling.  Here is what the animals say:  “No way, you’re too spikey. We’ll prick ourselves.” Too spikey, Hazel realizes about herself for the first time, and on the next page she wanders into isolation and cries big fat hedgehog tears. Brian and I had a good sick laugh over the plot. Then we quietly took Hazel out of circulation.

Hazel the Hedgehog isn’t a book about race or color. But it is a book that shows the incredible power of color to convey meaning and reinforce meaning. All hedgehogs are spikey. But not all hedgehogs are dark and not all horses are blonde. In case there was any confusion about spikeyness or softness, the colors were there to make the message clearer. Babies get that message, and they keep getting it. This is why psychology studies 50 years ago and psychology studies today show black girls all reaching for the white doll. This is why, for example, I have a very hard time explaining to my daughter that in her book about the Haitian Revolution, the band of dark-skinned slaves are the heroes and the white emporer with the funny hat named Napoleon is not.

Over the years, Hazel the Hedgehog has come to occupy a special place in the Maple Street imagination. Not to be confused with actual hedgehogs  —  which sometimes invade our garden and send my husband flying up the stairs for his rifle — Hazel has become a perfect little shorthand. She stands for any situation in which something racial or racist is happening, but no one will acknowledge it for what it is. Hazel was too spikey the same way the black kid people inch away from on the sidewalk is too scary. The same way a Michelle Obama new to the campaign trail was too angry. The same way that, in the preschool circles of my childhood, my hair was too woolly and strange. Playing Duck Duck Goose, sandy-haired girls and boys skipped around patting each other’s heads, but they hovered over mine. Instinct tells hedgehogs to roll into a ball when they feel threatened. The instincts of a 4-year-old are less clear than that.

At the end of the book, a turtle discovers Hazel crying and instantly recognizes her pain: The animals won’t play with him because he is too slow. The spikey one and the slow one become friends and the sun breaks into a new smile. Which is great. But it would be so much more satisfying if all the fluffy white animals were banished from the barnyard.

I have another friend for Hazel. His name is Spork. A spork is a common camping utensil, half-spoon, half-fork. Spork is also a book, and it’s pretty popular in this house. So popular and intriguing, in fact, that I went looking for its author. Our brief, warm connection was of the hedgehog-meets-turtle variety. More about that in Hazel the Hedgehog Part 2.

The Liebster Blog Award

The Liebster Blog Award, I discovered recently, recognizes up-and-coming blogs with small audiences and big heart. It is awarded by bloggers to fellow bloggers. How do I know this? Because Caramels on Maple Street became one of its recipients last week — how cool is that? Now it’s my turn to pay it forward and give a big Liebster Award shout-out recognizing some of my favorite blogs, here below.

Here’s how it works, fellow winners:

1. Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog.
2. Link back to the blogger who awarded you.
3. Copy and paste the blog award image on your blog.
4. Name your 5 blog picks.
5. Let them know you chose them by leaving a comment on their blog.
First order of business: Many many thanks to the blog Yes, We’re Together, (one of the most common things you’ll hear an interracial couple say, still, in American society).
My five blog picks, in no particular order, are:
1. Roots and Rambles — where “New England house historian and genealogist Marian Pierre-Louis explores genealogy, old houses, and history.”
2. Vintage Black Glamour — “a visual tribute to glamorous, inspiring, groundbreaking black women of the 20th century.”
3. Rage Against the Minivan — where a mom-of-four blogger “indulges in sleep-deprived rants about parenting, poop, adoption, politics, race, religion, and social justice.”
4. Boz Around — travel notes and inspiration for the modern family.
5. Outdoor Afro — “a community that reconnects African-Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities.”
History. Glamour. Adoption. Travel. And getting back to the land. All of these blogs inspire me! And that’s all she wrote, folks . . .

Out of the Mouths

The other day I decided to test Rose’s new understanding of rhyme, which she’s learning a lot about in preschool. “Lock! Block! That rhymes, Mama!” she’ll say, much the way I imagine Newton sounded when he discovered gravity.

Just for kicks, I figured I’d test her memory skills and her love of Ella Fitzgerald, whom she now knows a little bit about thanks to the lush, swingy new children’s book Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald.

When I heard her humming “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” I jumped in. Our call-and-response went like this:

Mama: “But oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part/ And oh, if we ever part then – that – might – break – my

Rose: “Skin!”

Mama: “Hmm . . . try again — then we must part/ And oh, if we ever part then – that – might – break – my —

Rose: “Bones!”

Ah, well. Rhyming’s overrated.

A Leaf Falls On

This blog is predicated on my living in a town where the sight of a black person turns heads and boggle minds. Lately, my sanity is predicated on getting away from twisted heads and boggled states. Far away, not just from the reality of being judged or prejudged, but from the fear of it happening, anticipating reality. It’s my perpetual Maple Street dilemma: Does keeping the blog mean losing my mind?

Tar spot, a disease of maples caused by Rhytisma acerinum.

Fall is here. I have not written for a while, but that is not because there is nothing to say. It’s because there is too much to say. Questions, there are plenty of: Was it a mistake to move here? Even if you take into account the joy bursting from small feet that tear across an endless yard; even if over the river and through the woods really does lead to grandmother’s house — not just in a song or on Thanksgiving but several times a week, every week; even with the smattering of area families who are like us and who seem happy, or at least more well-adjusted: Was it the right thing or the wrong thing to leave Boston for a town where we are visible curiosities? If it’s not a mistake yet, will it turn out to have been later, when those little feet begin to step into biracial identity? Does asking these question reflect a lack of mental toughness? A weakness of will? Can we belong somewhere just by declaring that we do?

I used to be patient; I used to be the person who told other black people to calm down. A black editor once led me, the new girl, on a tour of a newsroom by introducing me only to other black reporters. I remember feeling so sorry for him. I thought: It’s 1994. What is that about? Now it’s 2011, and I know what it’s about.

Not too long ago, I could find the humor in almost anything — even, at times, in ignorance. Even in racial ignorance, and even in racial ignorance directed at me. I don’t know where that person went. I suspect she may have been ground to dust, trying to help a succession of well-meaning, white-gloved folks hear the sound of their own quiet racism. Quiet racism, while polite and muted, can be deafening; if I’m having this much trouble tuning it out, I worry for my 6-year-old, my 4-year-old and my 2-year-old.

I came home the other day to find the UPS man in my driveway. A package!

Right there was my problem, apparently. I thought I could just come home and get a package.

“I’m just leaving this for the owners.” My hand goes out, his hand pulls back.

“You live here?”

Yes.

“You . . . live here?”

That time, he got me wondering. Here, in this driveway and with this package withheld, am I living?

What Kind of Mother

I grew up in a place called the Main Line, just outside Philadelphia. The Main Line isn’t a town or a school district or a county. It’s not a train line, although it got its name from a stretch of the Pennsylvania Railroad built in the 1800s. The Main Line contains a collection of towns, the same way Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses contain collections of jewels. It’s a loosely defined region, but more importantly it’s a state of mind, an atmosphere: of blue bloods and old money, horse shows, cricket clubs and sprawling estates. It’s the hometown of icy political spouse Betty Draper from Mad Men. When you read about or hear about the Main Line, you should imagine it being pronounced in an accent dripping with privilege, like Thurston Howell III.

If you’re the daughter of black immigrant doctors and you grow up in a place like this, the pressure to act or not act a certain way can be considerable. My mother wanted us to study hard, to excel, to race to the top. Underlying those aspirations was a cardinal rule: Don’t do anything or say anything that will confirm a negative stereotype white people have about black people. Don’t be loud. Don’t be late. Don’t talk like that. Don’t walk out of the house with your hair a bushy mess or your clothes a wrinkled mess. And I don’t think I ever did. Which is why, on a sunny day in August, hoisting 3-year-old Rose out of her car seat and into a cart at the supermarket, I froze when I realized something: My daughter had no pants on.

I had scooped her up so quickly in the driveway, I hadn’t noticed she was only wearing underwear and a shirt — a tunic-cut shirt, but a shirt nonetheless. Her Hello Kitty panties were exposed for all the world to see. And all I could think about was, what kind of mother do I look like? Or, just as likely since my daughter is so fair-skinned, what kind of babysitter do I look like? I prayed I wouldn’t run into any neighborhood parents — which I did (a perfectly tanned couple and their blond daughters, who had floated out of a J.Crew catalog). I prayed Rose wouldn’t broadcast it in her high-decibel warble — which she did, at the crowded deli counter. (“Mommy, where are my pants? This cart is making my butt freeze!”) It was the fastest market run I’d made in years.

I know all parents have these moments (right? right?). But in that brief instant, I wasn’t just a frazzled, disorganized mom picking up last-minute ingredients for dinner. I was the black mother whose child was in a public place in her underwear. I saw myself the way Betty Draper might see me, and the feeling I got was as irrational as it was real: I hadn’t just let down my daughter and her slightly shivering backside. I had let down my entire race. I didn’t want to feel that, but I couldn’t escape feeling it.

Big thanks to Fabiola Perez-Sitko, maker of the handcrafted, multicultural line of dolls fig & me for the photo above. It’s a funny story: Not wanting to use a photo of a real child in underwear, I started searching for images of dolls and landed on her blog. Then, a few minutes after my email, these words from the northern shore of Lake Superior: “I am Mexican, and my husband is Canadian of European descent. More often than not people do not associate my children with their father, and in some occasions have thought and said he had adopted them.”

Amazing. Caramels abound.

Out of the Mouths

When kids learn a new word or phrase, they try it on. They wait for the right moment, or what they think is the right moment, and then with all the conviction they can muster, they try to make something they don’t yet understand sound like something they figured out years ago. “You can’t read my mind, Rose!” Sky screamed one day after his sister accused him of hurting her intentionally. “You don’t even know how to read yet!”

In a weird way, the same is true of race. You can’t possibly ask a kid who doesn’t understand that reading doesn’t always mean reading to understand that brown-skinned people are actually called blacks (except when they’re Latino) and pink-skinned people are actually called whites (except when they happen to be your extremely light-skinned younger sister). Watching Sky struggle with this, I’m aware that part of me wishes he would never figure it out. That there was nothing to figure out in the first place.

Not too long ago, looking at a black and white photo of Coretta Scott King, Sky tried on race like this.

“Mom, guess what? You and Daddy are just like Martin Luther King and Coretta!”

“We are?”

“Yea. Martin Luther King is dark just like you, and Coretta is light just like Daddy. Look! See?”

Look. See. And he means that, literally.

The Curious Case of the Black Princess Napkin

If you’re a mommy blogger and one of the people who calls you ‘Mommy’ is a girl, it’s apparently your sworn duty to take to your blog and agonize over what’s been called the Princess Industrial Complex — the profit-sucking vortex of tiaras and pink tulle, of fairy-tale tea sets, glittery wands and folding deluxe castles. Show me a toddler in pink and I’ll show you a modern mother in crisis: Should I ban Cinderella for Halloween? Can I be a feminist and read Snow White at bedtime? My daughter’s obsessed with the handsome prince: Where did I go wrong??? Girl-culture expert Peggy Orenstein pretty much summed up the state of gender panic with her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Girlie-Girl Culture. (You gotta love a title that conjures up Disney and military combat in one breath.)

So far I haven’t signed up for grenade duty in this particular culture war. Yes, I cringe at Rose’s tassled princess bike, which looks like cotton candy on training wheels. But she’s just as likely to be outside catching tree frogs as she is to be riding her pink chariot (or stealing my green eyeshadow, which she applies to her cheeks). What I am stressed about — what’s got me in a sick funk, like a sleepless beauty stalked by a beast across a dance floor — is the knowledge that when it comes to color in fairy tales, pink is the least of my problems.

Recently, I found myself at a princess birthday party in our neighborhood. I haven’t been to many of these, but when I got there, it felt like I had walked into a princess locker room at half-time, with all the princesses shooting up steroids. There was a princess bouncy castle, princess makeup sets, princess plastic rhinestone party favors, two princess cakes and, naturally, a princess performer who sparkled as she walked. Rose was the only preschooler there who came dressed in a tshirt and pants, which should have been a sign the day wouldn’t end well.

When the time came to sing Happy Birthday, out came the princess cake supplies: the pink-handled cake cutter, the pink-striped candles and a big old stack of princess napkins. There was one napkin for each Disney princess: Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle and Tiana — Tiana, of course being the sassy round-the-way black princess from New Orleans in the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog.

As the line of 3-year-olds formed and the cake-cutting assembly line began, something unbelievable happened. I watched in silence, and what I witnessed chilled me to the bone: Every time the Tiana napkin came up, the mommy napkin distributor laid it aside and picked up the napkin underneath. She laid it aside, and took the napkin underneath. Aside, underneath. Aside, underneath.

Do you know those scenes in Hollywood movies when a character in a crowded room has a moment of Disillusionment, when all ambient noise falls away and the action shifts to slow motion? I always roll my eyes when movies do that. But as the pile of discarded Tiana napkins materialized on the Corian counter, I fell into my own movie. Everybody else was fine – better than fine, actually. Kids were singing Ring Around the Rosie or waving wands made from pink and purple balloons. Frosting covered my daughter’s mouth. The only dark skin in the room belonged to Tiana and me. And like her, I was gagged. Smiling, unable to speak, wishing my quiet, murderous wish upon a shooting star.

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