Monthly Archives: August 2011

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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Love, to a Guinea Hen

Pretty much everyone in our neighborhood knows Kanga and Charlotte, the two goats we inherited a while back from Brian’s uncle. In one of my early posts for this blog, I explained the unlikely but true story that Kanga and Charlotte were the perfect goats for us to inherit, because they are racially loaded. What I mean by that is, Charlotte happens to be the fluffy, docile, utterly non-threatening white goat. And Kanga happens to be the hostile, aggressive, apparently troubled black goat, forever trying to jump the fences and escape. Now, there’s a lot one could say here. But this blog post is not about goats, so for now I’ll only say two things. One: The task of explaining to your kids’ friends that they can pet the nice fluffy white goat, but they can’t touch the mean black goat, is just more than what should be asked of a black woman living on Maple Street. Two: Kanga, I feel you.

One of the biggest gulfs we’ve had to bridge in this marriage has to do with animals. I often tell people that over the years, I’ve been conned into living in the animal menagerie that has overtaken our house. It’s not even a very good con, but somehow it always works. “Come on, Francie Pants, the cat won’t bother anybody!” (Hello, allergies.) “Come on, Francie Pants, chickens will be fun!” (Hello, chicken shit in the driveway. Hello, bare feet of three children casually stepping in chicken shit in said driveway. Hello, chicken shit on the living room floor, from chicken wandering inside screen door left wide open.) “Francie Pants, that’s a mother raccoon and her babies. We can’t kick them out of our chimney in the dead of winter!” (Hello, raccoon urine dripping down fireplace. Hello, bullet hole in brand-new cabinet wall from gunshot husband fired when mother raccoon terrorized our kitchen).

I curse the animals, I ignore the animals, I roll my eyes when Brian turns to me and asks, after a long silence, “Francie Pants, what do you think the cat is thinking right now?” The one thing I don’t do — that I can’t do — is feel. I’ve never felt anything for an animal, ever. The animals make my two sons and my daughter giddy with joy, and I’m aware that that happiness is something I have no way of understanding. I’m aware that Brian knows all about it, because of the epic love stories he and his family have shared with the dogs in their lives. Rags. Smiley. Caesar. Sequel. Seeing that love in our kids makes me jealous, but it also makes me feel warm.

One morning a few weeks ago, I was standing in the kitchen and noticed one of our guinea hens on the ledge of the back porch. Guinea hens make the most grating sound known to man. (It’s often the sound that wakes me before 6 am. Again, conned.) I don’t know why, but I started looking at this guinea hen differently on this particular day. It was focused and insistent. It did not move from the ledge. “It’s calling for its mate,” Brian told me as I reached up for the cereal bowl. A few days earlier, one of our guinea hens had wandered onto Maple Street and got run over. The ledge on the back porch looks directly out onto the road.

And for the first time, there it was. A feeling. I listened to that scraping, awful cry and I thought, if the pain of losing someone you loved were a sound, it would be that sound. I kept listening and the more I heard it, the more that cry sounded like two words. Come back. Come back.

The Fantastic Tightrope

President Obama turned 50 yesterday, to birthday tweets from around the world and a serenade from Jennifer Hudson in Chicago. As the mother of three biracial children, it’s awfully hard sometimes not to get caught up in what Obama represents, no matter what I think of him as a president (and at the moment, I have no idea what to think of him as a president). To me, his election was a little bit like stepping up to a coin-operated viewfinder, like the kind you see at the Grand Canyon or the Brooklyn Bridge. I dropped my ballot into a slot, and for a brief moment (very brief, as it turned out), I could see up-close the majesty of something that in reality is so distant it can’t be contemplated: a country lifting itself up and over to the other side of this thing we call race.

But I wasn’t actually feeling the whole Obama-turns-50 story arc that much. Instead, I found myself thinking about another man whose birthday passed this week — someone who didn’t need to use the word ‘audacity’ in a book title, because his entire life was an act of protest and total disregard for conventional thought. I thought about the black gay intellectual expatriate activist James Baldwin. The Harlem-born writer would have been 87 on Tuesday.

Baldwin was relentless. He was a prophet and he was a laser. The dictionary defines ‘laser’ as a device that produces a highly coherent beam of light by exciting atoms to a higher energy level and causing them to radiate. Baldwin produced highly coherent, unflinching beams of light with words. He seemed incapable of writing a single sentence if it didn’t serve the purpose of telling people what was true, and what the difference was between that truth and the fictions with which we surround ourselves. So long as he could take pen to paper, he refused to allow the dilemma of race to live on the periphery of the American conversation — and he refused to allow it to be framed as a problem about black people or what white people had done to blacks. For Baldwin, from the auction block to the housing projects, it was a problem about white people and what they had done to themselves. He was a radical, but not in the way Al Sharpton (now behind an anchor desk at MSNBC) or Cornel West (now obsessed with his unreturned phone calls to Obama) fashion themselves as radicals. His brand of insight would not go over well sitting across from Bill Maher or Jon Stewart: To Baldwin, there was nothing funny about the state of America.

There have been a few biographies of Baldwin over the years. I’ve never written a biography of anybody, but writing about Baldwin sounds like a death wish: In fiction and nonfiction, he wrote about his life and everything he believed with beauty and searing honesty, and he did it to exhaustion. Below are a few excerpts from a collection of his nonfiction published last year, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin.

James Baldwin and William Shakespeare | Photo by Allen Warren

On the notion of a black president:

“Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day — thirty years, if I’m lucky — I can be President too. It never entered this boy’s mind, I suppose — it has not entered the country’s mind yet — that perhaps I wouldn’t want to be. And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro president. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.”

On the problem of race:

“There has never been in this country a Negro problem. I have never been upset by the fact that I have a broad nose, big lips, and kinky hair. You got upset. And now you must ask yourself why I, for example, do not bring down property values when I move in. You bring them down when you move out.”

On what black people want:

“Let us say that a hundred years ago, when I was technically emancipated from the land and given over to the landlords and the bosses — let us say that I was happy in my place and that I loved doing all that singing and dancing down on the levee. Now I, and my father and grandfather, to say nothing of my grandmother and her mother, never for a moment believed that we were singing and dancing down on the levee because were so happy . . . But what has happened is that the country (by ‘the country’ I mean our government and most of our citizens) believes that I was happy in my place. They believe it so strongly that now they have the courage to ask, What does the Negro want? Well, I know what the Negro wants, and any man who is able to walk and talk knows what the Negro wants. If you know what you want, then you know what I want.”

On the blues:

“You’ve seen these black men and women, these boys and girls; you’ve seen them on the streets. But I know what happened to them at the factory, at work, at home, on the subway, what they go through in a day, and the way they sort of ride with it. And it’s very, very tricky. It’s kind of a fantastic tightrope. They may be very self-controlled, very civilized; I like to think of myself as being very civilized and self-controlled, but I know I’m not. And I know that some improbable Wednesday, for no reason whatever, the elevator man or the doorman, the policeman or the landlord, or some little boy from the Bronx will say something, and it will be the wrong day to say it, the wrong moment to have said it to me; and God knows what will happen. . . . What the blues are describing comes out of all of this.”

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