One of my father’s closest friends is the owner of the first black barbershop in my Ohio hometown where I grew up. My cousin worked there as a cashier when I was little and always took me along with her. This is when my father’s friend would always tell me that the name of his shop was his actual, full name: Poor Clark’s. As a little girl, I thought his first name was “Poor”, pronounced Po, and that his last name was “Clark.” This was a fabrication that Mr. Clark actually upheld until I was old enough to figure it out for myself. When I remind him of this, he laughs and agrees that this is a good first name, proud that he concocted such a story for me. He also told me that he was born in a place so deep back there in the backwoods of Mississippi that they had to pipe sunshine in. I believed every word of that also and had fanciful imaginations for how one might get sunshine through a very, very long pipe. My cousins and family told me stories like this all of the time and I believed every word. While I was arguably a very gullible, little girl, I certainly learned that you can make language and stories twist and turn at your will. With these stories, however, also came expectations for how to live my life and understand myself. I was expected to question everything, use a sharp level of common sense, value quick wit in language play, maneuver the world with a critical eye, know a lie when I hear one, not be the fool who gets fooled by smooth talk, look past what someone says to see who they really are, pay close attention to what people do rather than to what they verbally profess, not believe someone just because they proclaimed themselves superior/intelligent, refuse to see myself as too small/too weak/too insignificant to handle tough situations, not back down from something that intimidated me, and realize when I am being tricked, thwarted, or messed over. I was expected to be there for my community and to be able to know to rely on myself—my intuition, my social perceptions, and my own political awareness. I see all of this now as a kind of black literacy skills-set, a black-girl skills-set even, a worthy one that I will always be honing. This is why my favorite book has always been Flossie and the Fox. Though this isn’t the book that officially kicked off my anti-princess campaign on this blog, it is THE book that changed my relationship to children’s literature and to the alternate universe it can offer for and about black children. The book is simply brilliant for the ways in which it not only revises the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood, but destroys it and makes it unutterable for little black girls.
Published in 1986 by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Rachel Isadora, McKissack’s tale represents a story that was told to her by her grandfather while sitting on the front porch with her family during hot summer evenings in the South. This story does not begin with: Once upon a time. Instead, Grandfather would open with a question: “Did I ever tell you about the time…” Little black girls are active participants here as they become the both the moral and the message. Now this is a story you just have to hear.
Flossie Finley is a little girl from Tennessee who rushes to her grandmother’s side when she is called. Big Mama is busy sorting peaches so Little Flossie must take a basket of fresh eggs over to Miz Viola because a sly fox has been scaring the hens. Flossie tells Big Mama that she “disremembers” ever seeing a fox but Big Mama, after stopping to think for a minute, assures her this: “Chile, a fox be just a fox” and simply tells her to watch the eggs closely. With that advice, Flossie is on her way to Miz Viola, walking through the woods instead of using the road to stay cooler. Sure enough, Flossie runs into the fox who asks her what her name is. Just as polite as can be, Flossie gives the fox her name and tells him she doesn’t know his name either. When he answers that he is Fox, Flossie lets him know she doesn’t believe him and soon after, he commences to prove his fox-ness to her. And, from there, Flossie just shows her shine. After all, a fox be just a fox. That’s not something she can’t handle.
Fox is just beside himself that a little girl like Flossie doesn’t know who he is and is not scared of him and he tells her as much. Flossie’s answer is classic: “you sho’ think a heap of yo’self” and then she just skips right along. When she stops to rest by a tree, Fox comes along to offer her his proof: “I have thick, luxurious fur.” Flossie rubs on his fur and tells him flat-out: “feels like rabbit fur to me” and then accuses fox of trying to fool her. Fox is ticked off now and insists that she needs to recognize his fox-status and act accordingly. It doesn’t work though. “Unless you can show you a fox, I’ll not accord you nothing!” and with that, Flossie gets at him, once again, and then skips along.
Flossie is thirsty now and so she stops to get some water at the brook. Fox comes out to her and asks her to notice his pointed nose and warns that this fact should be proof enough for her. The dialogue here is just beautiful.
Flossie: Come to think of it, rats got a long pointed nose (then she snaps her fingers). That’s it! You a rat trying to pass yo’self off as a fox.
Fox: I beg your pardon.
Flossie: You can beg all you wanna. That still don’t make you no fox.
Next in her travels, Flossie meets up with a tabby cat who she enlists in her discussion. Fox asks Cat to speak up and assure Flossie that he is a fox. Cat obliges by pointing out the details of Fox’s claws and yellow eyes. This does not deter Flossie either who pretends to be deep in thought and then says: “All due respect, Miz Cat, but both y’all got sharp claws and yellow eyes. So… that don’t prove nothing ‘cep’n both y’all be cats.” Fox now starts to plead about “this horrible situation” and again tries to offer her proof: this time, it is his bushy tail that he describes. Not missing a beat, Flossie reminds him that squirrels have the same kind of tail. When Fox offers his promise to Flossie that he is a fox, Flossie just lets him know that his promise won’t do.
By this point in the story, Flossie can see Miz Viola’s house at the McCutchin place in the distance so she allows Fox one more chance. He offers the evidence of his sharp teeth and ability to “run exceedingly fast.” Again, the dialogue is perfect:
Flossie: You know, it don’t make much difference what I think anymore.
Fox: What? Why?
Flossie: Cause there’s one of Mr. J.W. McCutchin’s hounds behind you. He’s got sharp teeth and can run fast too. And, by the way, that hounds looking’, it’s all over for you!
The story ends with the fox running for his life and Flossie looking out at us, every egg in tow, with the biggest most beautiful smile, letting us know that she knew he was Fox all along.
Like I said, this was just not a story I could really summarize and my telling does the book very little justice here. The story is just too perfect. This is no Little Red Riding Hood: this is not a girl who is given one path/dictate that she must follow and then punished brutally for not following it, too naive and unaware to handle alternate worlds, ideas, and independence. There is no woodsman to come and save the day. Flossie is never even given a path, only a destination in relation to a much larger community than the nuclear family. Like Stevie Wonder tells it, when you’re movin’ in the positive, the destination is the brightest star. Flossie is trusted to get to the destination and is encouraged to believe in her ability to get there. After all, Big Mama tells her before she even leaves that a fox ain’t all that. The Fox— i.e., the big, bad world— is never made bigger than Flossie and she never treats it as such. She never once co-signs the Fox’s overdetermined beliefs in his own superiority and power and lets him know it at each step of the way. And she doesn’t need someone to come save her because she can save herself— with her sharp wit, intelligence, and ability to see things exactly as they are, knowing exactly who she is and where she is. She is still innocent and pure in the way she interacts with the creatures on her travels but she is not so gullible and pathetic that she loses the ability to recognize a predator and handle him. Not even the fox’s, lofty, high-faluting language is given any kind of social marker of intelligence, educated status, worth, or superiority.
I would go so far as to say that for a black girlchild, the knowledge/talent/wisdom that Flossie has are a life-and-death matter in a world dictated by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. You will HAVE to be creative on that kind of path because the walkway will never be clear-cut. The fact that a black grandfather would tell his grandchildren this story on the front porch speaks volumes to a black community’s full awareness of this kind of life-and-death matter and the ability to present it to children, not in self-defeating ways, but in life-affirming ways. This grandfather knows that them silly princess fairy tales are not for his Flossie-girlchildren and he gives them something even BETTER from his own mouth and from his own word! Like I have kept saying here in this anti-princess campaign, we have always had alternatives. And we have always had counter-rhetorical styles and counter-epistemologies that offer girls a role and vision of themselves beyond the exaltation of passivity, male dominance, and white femininity.