Let my elementary and junior high school friends (and mom) tell it, I once had a rather unhealthy infatuation with the legend and genius we have come to call Prince. I stopped adoring celebrities in that kind of way long ago but I have always been someone who would ride or die for everything beforePurple Rain (For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, and Controversy) + “If I Was Your Girlfriend” + “Adore” + so much more. At eleven years old in 1982, Prince’s 1999 was the first vinyl album I ever bought for myself, by myself, with my own money earned from babysitting. No borrowing or asking adults when it came to this album! The track, “Lady Cab Driver,” was my ultimate center of gravity though I couldn’t possibly have understood what that song was talking about (see the music player above).
“Purple Rain” seems to be literally playing in homes, cars, stores— all around me— right now, a song whose coupling of deep sadness and triumph I am only now appreciating. It had never occurred to me that I would take Prince’s loss this hard, though the OldSkool block parties here in my hometown of Brooklyn sure do make the mourning so much sweeter. There will be memorials and tantalizing stories of Prince’s death in the days to come, I am sure. During all of that (pending) mayhem, I’m going to just sit with my 11-year-old self and the woman I am now who understands “Purple Rain” so much better.
My initial reaction was related to the adult coloring book trend. I have been curious in the past few months about adult coloring books and their supposed connection to mindfulness and mental health. I tend to flip through the pages when I encounter one. Though I have an abundant supply of colored pencils and markers, I seldom use these utensils for any concentrated creativity anymore. More importantly, I’ve never been compelled to actually purchase one of these coloring books because I am not particularly inspired by the designs, though I appreciate their intricacy. I am always annoyed that Africanized cultures are ommitted despite the undeniable power of pattern and design in African visual life. Though I contemplate doing my own Afrocentric pages, I just never managed to do that work. When I saw Johnson’s artwork, I thought: see THERE it is! Her signature black sharpie, black crayon, and colored pencil style should be an inspiration for what an Afrocentric coloring book and line-design project could offer.
After my mother lost her job in the recession crunch a few years ago, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity). As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness. It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out. And the older I am and the more older sistahs I know (who remind you to count the blessing of your mother’s time with you), I realize that every moment counts since having lotsa time with your Mama is no longer something we can take as much for granted.
“Fruit of Generosity” by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)
I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot. I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?” OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you? That’s always been a favorite expression of mine. No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?” I was never babysat, I was always KEPT.
Since today is officially the second day of Kwanzaa, the day of Kujichagulia (self-determination)— my favorite of the Nguzo Saba–– it seems appropriate to share my other favorite books from my Cyber Monday adventure today.
I have never followed the American Girl series. I think it’s because of those scary-lookin dolls that they sell. I knew of Addy’s Stories but have never followed the work of Connie Porter. That changed this Cyber Monday as I began to take a closer look at the series, especially the one that focuses on Christmas, Addy’s Surprise. I love the way the little girl and her mother are described in the cold winter of Philadelphia, as well as Addy’s concern for her family who is still enslaved. Christmas here is, obviously, not about toys and things, but all about the passions and joy of memory and care. I have not finished the entire series yet, but plan to do so.
Waiting for Christmas
This is a beautifully illustrated book by Jan Spivey Gilchrist and written by Monica Greenfield (daughter of noted author, Eloise Greenfield). It is the poem-story of a brother and sister on the days and nights before Christmas: playing in the snow, sitting with family at the fireplace, decorating a tree, and finally being able to wish everyone a merry day. I enjoyed the short poem-story in its brilliant simplicity along with the beautiful renderings of this sweet little boy and girl.
Mim’s Christmas Jam
The name, Pinkney, looms large in African American children’s literature. Jerry Pinkney, noted watercolor artist/illustrator, is the father of Brian Pinkney, whose dynamic use of scratchboard has become his own signature style in children’s literature. Andrea, an editor-writer, and Brian married and have created a virtual canon of children’s literature. Mim”s Christmas Jam is one noted example. The story begins with a young brother and sister, Saraleen and Royce, fondly remembering their Christmas traditions with their father who will not be with them to celebrate. Their father must work in New York City to build the subway, rough and dangerous work that offers no vacation. They send their father his favorite treat in the world, their mother’s special Christmas jam (a recipe is included in the book). The jam is so sweet that even their father’s bosses are inclined to give workers the day off for Christmas and with that, Saraleen and Royce, receive their Christmas wish: the return of their father.
Christmas Makes Me Think
Last, but not least, is Tony Medina’s Christmas Makes Me Think. Medina captures the way a little boy experiences all of the wonders of Christmas: the joys and contradictions. The little boy, the narrator and source of consciousness, offers a compelling viewpoint. He cherishes helping his grandmother bake a chocolate cake and seeing the tree and presents in his home. But he also questions the desire to cut down trees and kill animals to serve on the table. As he thinks about new gifts and the things he already has, he wants us to notice the homeless and poor who have nothing while he has excess. Christmas makes him think… about other people, not just himself. It is a wonderful message told from the voice of a young black boy who is one of the most believable characters I have seen!
“Christmas always came to our house, but Santy Claus only showed up once in a while.” I love this line. It does so much in just 16 words. “Santy Claus” is marked as Other both in how it is named and located as a secondary, um, clause. It literally delivers Christmas from its consumerist saga and resets it within new sets of practices and values. The line comes from none other than the children’s book written by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney: The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll. These 16 words are the perfect opening to the historical story that gets represented in this book.
In the story, beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, three sisters receive one special gift: Baby Betty Doll. The sisters, once inseparable— called chickadees by their mother, because they were always chattering, twittering, and doing everything together— are now fighting amongst one another. When Santy Claus actually does visit in one auspicious year with the beloved Baby Betty Doll, conflict arises since all three must share the one, coveted doll. Nella convinces her two sisters that Baby Betty was her idea and written request to Santy so she should receive the doll. The other two sisters begrudgingly agree and go on to play outside without their sister. Nella thinks she is going to have the best day of her life, only to find out it becomes the worst: playing with the doll, all alone, without her sister’s company, bores her to tears. She apologizes to her two sisters and from there, they work out a plan so that the doll can belong to all three of them. It the end, they learn that all they really want for Christmas is themselves, their creativity, togetherness, and family, not a store-bought item.
The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll is set in the Great Depression and works well as the sequel to Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters about a Virginia plantation in 1859, also by Patricia McKissack. In Christmas in the Big House, McKissack offers a look into the ways that the resources, lifestyles, values, and traditions between the plantation vs. the quarters are stunningly different, with Christmas as one shining example. Although the book has been criticized for not showing enough of the harshness of slavery, the critique of race and accumulation in the book is on point. McKissack is, after all, saying something quite deliberate about the histories of values, Christmas, and black communities in this book with one striking scene: the slave master promises his young white daughter that she’ll be able to have her very own slave in 1865 when she will be old enough to know how to be a real master; meanwhile, down in them slave quarters, a black slave mother tells a young black male that freedom is soon coming so they might postpone their escape. Given what we know about how news of the Emancipation Proclamation, slave revolts, and icons like Nat Turner traveled amongst slaves, completely out of the sight and hearing of most whites, the striking differences in BOTH the conversations and practices that McKissack portrays is a historical accuracy, not a romantic overpass.
Like she does with Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, McKissack uses historical research to write The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll also.This book is not a world of make believe or simply a story about learning to share. I was surprised to see how many introductions and discussions of the book leave out the one, very important character who McKissack introduces at the very start in her “Note about the Story”: Mary Lee Bendolph. Once again, we see the white liberalist imperative of a false “universalism” wipe away black historical specificity. The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll is the narrative of Mrs. Mary Lee Bendolph, called Miz Mary, a famous quilter and storyteller from Gee’s Bend, a legendary African American community of slave descendants who even turned the papering of walls to keep out drafts into an art form. The three sisters in The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll even play as they wallpaper at their mother’s direction, a practice you can glimpse in the short documentary below:
McKissack’s story about a black family’s gift of one doll to a family of sisters is the story of Miz Mary and her own sisters. McKissack attempted to create an image of a black family in the Great Depression based on the way that Miz Mary described her own all-black town and life there. Here is Miz Mary talking about her quilting and how the mainstream apparatus had no way of seeing her work as art because “they didn’t know nuthin about no art”:
McKissack does a wonderful thing in this children’s book. She goes from the traditions and spiritual values laid into the practices of quilting— sophisticated, century-old practices unseen and unimagined in the white world— to tell a story of what Christmas would have looked like for them. I created the playlist below to go with McKissack’s children’s book. The playlist starts with Miz Mary, looks at various events and stories related to the many women in Gee’s Bend, and ends with a historical look at African American women’s quilting as a spiritual/visual rhetoric and journey.
Before I even knew this book was based on Mary Lee Bendolph, I knew McKissack would create The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll to match a real black family’s life. She always reminds us that we have alternate stories to tell. We have alternate stories to live by.