Category Archives: colorstruck

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.

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Cleanliness Is Next to —————.

The summer after my junior year in college, I went to Paris to research what I thought was going to be my senior thesis topic: the art of the French Revolution. It was late June 1991, 20 years ago almost to the day. I had gotten caught up in the whole beheading thing, and in one painting in particular  — The Death of Marat. It memorializes the Jacobin hero Jean-Paul Marat, lying in a pool of his own blood following his murder in 1793. Marat had a skin condition that caused bouts of violent itching and required cold baths. He was taking a bath when his asssassin entered his room, pulled a knife and stabbed him clean through the heart.

I had my fellowship money, my department-approved proposal, my ridiculous Paris apartment that no 20-year-old should have. Then one day, while researching hygiene rituals from the period in a library, I stumbled onto something. It was another image of a figure bathing. At first, I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing; it didn’t look quite like anything I’d seen before. But after a couple more hours of digging, I called my adviser to tell him I wasn’t going to be writing about the French Revolution. Here was an ad for laundry bleach (one of hundreds I would later find) whose premise rested on the idea that it could tackle the most stubborn dirt imaginable: the skin of a black person.

What do ads for 19th-century detergent have to do with raising biracial kids in a small town in 2011? I’m not really sure, but I found myself pulling out my thesis two decades later, realizing how much this picture speaks to ideas about whiteness and blackness, especially in a child’s mind. Being dark(er) in a light world means getting the idea early on that your darkness is a ‘thing’ — not just that it’s less good, which our kids will inevitably be made to feel at some point, but that’s it’s some kind of layer, something that demands some kind of explanation. Something that, in this country and in this environment especially, people will react to continually, one way or another.

A few months ago, my oldest said to his dad, “Daddy, I wish I was white.” When Brian asked why, Sky’s answer was pretty straightforward: “Because everything would be easier.” Indeed. I remember feeling that way as a little girl myself. I remember thinking: What if, somehow, I could wash it off? Wouldn’t that make me just the luckiest dark girl in this white world?

I’m Lighter than You

It’s summer time, which means the little caramels in my life are turning into the sticky, summer versions of themselves. It means day camp in the morning and the water hose snaking down the driveway and deep into the yard. It means chasing chickens half-naked (as opposed to chasing chickens in bubble jackets). And it means a melanin boost that can only be described as delicious, and that I find myself wishing they could keep all year long — not only because it looks great, but because life on Maple Street feels just a little sweeter, a little less complicated, when I look more like my kids’ mommy and less like their nanny.

 

 

 

 

Generations pass. My grandmother on my father’s side lived in Haiti, where my parents were born and raised. As kids, we would go there to visit relatives and when we did, my grandmother would urge me to stay out of the sun. She understood well the laws of our colorstruck world: lighter is better. White is better than black; and among blacks, light has always been better than dark. What my grandmother wanted was to make sure I didn’t get any darker than I already was. Every day, thousands of black girls are born to mothers and grandmothers who want the same thing — to be something other than what they are.

Despite everything we’ve done to shield our kids from this scarring logic, it is seeping through. In the car a few days ago, Rose decided to pick on Sky with these words: “I’m lighter than you!” Upon hearing that, I could barely maintain my lane.  And then before I could even react: “No you’re not! I’m medium and you’re medium! We’re both the same!” I wish I could say that I have no idea how a 3-year-old could absorb colorism at such a young age, but the truth is I have a very good idea: She lives in the world.

Amazingly, there is a documentary film coming that will address this very legacy head on. The film is called Dark Girls, and it is a labor of love brought to us by the black film director Bill Duke. If the trailer is any indication, it’s going to be a searing mix of cultural history and personal revelation, of families passing down untold pain and girls going to bed with eyes squeezed shut  — hoping, praying that they might be lighter when those eyes open.

The sun was spectacular today. Let summer begin.

 

 

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