Self-Determined: The Final Four

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Since Cyber Monday, I have been on a quest to find children’s book that positively reflect Christmas in the context of African American cultures, children, and families.  It started out rough but ended well. 

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.

Addy’s Surprise

ASI 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

waitingThis 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.

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Mim’s Christmas Jam

MimThe 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

christmas-makes-me-think-tony-medina-coverLast, 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!

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The Last Day of the 2013 Winter Solstice!

SolsticeI have fond, childhood memories of this time: the kitchen of the aunt who helped raise me and the joy and laughter everywhere when we were stuck inside in the Ohio, winter months. I have memories of my cousins, the single mothers, who always talked to me like an adult even when I was really young, explaining how they planned and saved money for their children’s gifts beginning in July and August.  They were all struggling in all kinds of ways but always saw to it that their children would smile every Christmas morning (it was only as an adult that I figured out that my mother was doing the same.)  It wasn’t about the gifts ever, just surrounding their children with the kind of wonder and awe that poor people are not supposed to experience. The financial planning that working class/working poor single mothers did back then during the holidays (no one I knew had credit cards) represents a financial genius that could re-organize our collapsing economic system, if that was what we really wanted!  A working class, single mother who is doing it all on her own, without the social imprint of needing male (sexual) attention or patriarchal protection, has a formidable skills-set, at this time of the year and every other time. So every year around now, I especially remember these women.  I certainly see and appreciate all of the listings of suggested eco/cultural/conscious gifts to buy during the holidays, but I also remember an anti-capitalist analysis of the greatest ploy in the Western world to keep today’s working class in debt.  It was young, working class black single mothers— my very own cousins who made me into the little sister who would carry their heart’s torch— who gave me this political lens.

At this time of year, I also turn my gaze to the Winter Solstice, thanks to the help of a college friend a few years back who has shared some of the most significant spiritual insights with me. Now, let me be clear. I am no Solstice Purist, Expert, or ardent Practitioner.  There have been times when I try to get out of Solstice work by seeking an astrological reading.  The results usually tell me that I’m stubborn, stank, and sometimes rather unyielding, things I already know.  I don’t get much from this information other than, perhaps, a justification for why I have a tendency to yell at folk in the NYC subway: “get…YO… a$%… out… the… way!”  (I mean, really, you canNOT stop and answer a text message on a subway stairway when 50 people are coming full force behind you!)   I have, thus, figured that I can’t really replace the opportunities that the Winter Solstice provides with an “astrological reading.”

The Winter Solstice takes place this year for four days and four nights, December 21 to December 24 (according to nautical calendars), the time when the sun is at its southernmost position. This is that time when the sun rises at the latest in the day and sets at the earliest of the entire year. The day is shortest; the night is longest. For the Ancients in Kemet, enlightenment is literally written into the cosmos, in this very movement of the sun and stars. Light gradually increases in the winter sunrise, hence, offering a kind of spiritual rebirth. This means that you can use the time of the Winter Solstice to discover your purpose and realize true spiritual power, but only if you slow down and tap into it.

9067250My ideas are shaped mostly from Ra Un Nefer Amen who makes a plea for intensive meditation during the Winter Solstice when the gates between the spiritual realm and the lived world are open (by spiritual realm, he means spirit, subconscious, or even what Jung called unconscious.)  Though I am not following his prescriptive formula for meditation at the Solstice, Ra Un Nefer Amen’s teachings seem invaluable, namely that we often live out a toxic program that we intentionally create for ourselves.  We are not passive onlookers of our own lives and instead invent and design our own programs of stunning self-destruction with the choices we make: how we spend our money, who we choose to have intimate relationships with, how we treat our bodies/our health, and how we approach or stall our work/career.  Since spirit carries out the behavior that manifests these negative things in our lives, then spirit is what we need to work on.  What makes ancient cultures important here (Amen’s focus is on Kemet) is that they believe the Winter Solstice was the time that the spirit could receive a new message and, therefore, discard old, toxic programming.  Getting rid of a toxic program is not an easy thing, a feat few people ever really achieve (and spend a lot of money on therapy for), hence, the importance and weight of the intervention of the Winter Solstice. These are all, of course, very simplistic lenses into what Kemetic philosophers like Amen believe and say, but you see where I am going here.

My Christmas TreeMy ruminations here on the Winter Solstice might seem strange or even offensive to friends who are, on one side, atheist or agnostic, and, on the other side, deeply committed to their specific church or religious doctrines.  I myself have not been fully acculturated into these belief systems and do not go any deeper than what I have said here. I intend no disrespect to anybody, only the suggestion that the ways the Ancients saw these coming days, the axes of the sun, the value of deep meditation, and the general process where you slowwww down can’t be all that bad.  I can’t see a more pressing need for exactly such a practice when all anyone seems to be doing now is spending money, accruing debt and interest on charge cards, running around frantically, or being angry at hyper-consumerism.  This seems like the best time for me to be tapping into who I am and all that I can still become.  Though I couldn’t articulate it back then, I now see the working class/working poor single mothers who cocooned my girlhood as women who must have been able to tap into a powerful site where their spirit resided.  Yes, they used their youth, radical black female subjectivity and working class consciousness to read their political environments brilliantly, but they also lived their lives from a powerful center/spirit.  There is just no other way that you can move the kinds of mountains they did without that.  As I finish my last days grading and work towards the challenge of reconnecting with my own spirit, I’ll be thinking of them.

Christmas with Mrs. Mary Lee Bendolph!

005.480x480-75“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.

allilleverwantchristmasdollIn 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.

MLLike 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.

 

For All Black Angels

washington-cherry-treeIt was a fellow second grader who first told me that Santa Claus was not real.  I remember coming home with many questions, not about Santa, but about everything else I could think of.  The tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Mickey Mouse, the talking animals in my children’s books, Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny and EVEN Wonder Woman were not real.  That’s a lot for a child to ingest in one day. There was one fiction that I never questioned though.  It was a story that a family friend, who I think of as an uncle, told me.  I had come home excited from school talking non-stop about what I had learned about President George Washington.  My uncle told me to rethink my excitement because the Big G.W. wasn’t all that.  According to him, GW chopped down momma’s cherry tree, lied about it, and so my uncle had no choice but to whup dat ass.  I told everyone about my amazing uncle after that, despite the naysayers and player-haters who insisted that my uncle was not old enough to know GW.  My uncle IS old was my vehement response.  Plus, my uncle had animatedly replayed the whole conversation for me.  You couldn’t make up something like that as far as I was concerned.  I offer this story not to highlight my eventual discovery of my uncle’s age and tall-tale-telling but as a way to counter a problematic Christmas book about African American children.  The fact that my uncle, a man who cannot read and write, replaced white greatness with people who look like me in an everyday children’s conversation is a kind of love and political capacity that escapes far too many.

116637200On Cyber Monday, I searched the corners of google and bing for multicultural Christmas books for children.  I wanted to especially see what African American children in such books did and how the idea of Christmas was depicted in black homes (I decided to save Kwanzaa for later which produces much more interesting books, quite obviously).  I purchased the 1997 text, An Angel Like Me by Mary Hoffman, because the illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu are just stunning. I was drawn to the text because it takes on the issue of why Christmas paraphernalia features white characters and not brown ones.  Everything that I read online seemed to offer a great review.  While I don’t agree with arguments that white writers can’t compose stories for black children, in this case, those arguments gain some validity.  The lack of connection to black families, black storytelling, and race pride distorts this writer’s entire ability to compose a narrative about black children and their families.

The story gets set off when a black family breaks one of its angel ornaments.  Tyler, the young protagonist of the book, immediately asks why angels are always white, blonde, and feminine.  No one can answer his question.   NO. BODY.  He even asks his mother why Jesus is depicted as white.  Again, no one has an answer for him.  Not a single adult can answer and most seem to say: hmmm, I never noticed that.  Really?  No single black adult in the book has ever thought about whiteness?  How on earth have these black folk survived slavery, Post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Reagonomics, post-racism?  Finally, at the end of the book, an art student who babysits for the family, who also couldn’t answer Tyler’s question about the prevalence of white angels, carves Tyler a brown angel that looks just like him and the story ends happily ever after. Now, for some folk, this story is not enough cause for disgust.  Well, they are wrong.  Get off this blog!  It ain’t for you or about you. Only someone who does not know black families and cannot sociologically imagine how they function in this world could write this kind of book.  Could you ever imagine me going up to my uncle, asking him about whiteness, and him NOT having any answer?  Do you really think that any child in my family who asks why Jesus, Santa, or angels are depicted as white finds people who are so stumped that they cannot provide any answer?  You think I ain’t got some answers that I relate in fantastically creative narratives?  Do you think that all we do is sit around and eat sweet potato pie over the holidays and never talk about anything?  What a stoopit book!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend recently suggested that I watch an interview with Marianne Williamson where she talks about love.  Now, some of that New Age spirituality gets a little weird to me, but, hey, to each their own. Some of it just borrows too heavily from Non-Western spiritual traditions and remixes all of that for American, bourgeois individualism.  Nevertheless, there are times when a definition or phrase moves me deeply.  In this interview, Williamson gives a definition of love that describes black folk beautifully.  She is not, of course, talking explicitly about black people, but about a kind of everyday practice that I attribute to them: “a spiritual, mental, emotional, personal strength that I develop in myself to refuse to see you as other people might have chosen to see you today.”  She calls this a kind of sacred, daily practice when you “give birth, rebirth, to [someone’s] own self-confidence, their own belief in themselves, their own strength and glory, because you see what others might not see.”  I get this kind of sacred practice and strength everytime I talk to one of my sistafriends and mentors who refuse to see me from the lens of a violating, white, dominant gaze.  I also get this every time I talk to one of my colleagues of color about something that has happened; they don’t ever act like I am overreacting or sweep everything under the rug like most white colleagues do— they have the ability to see and hear me and offer an alternative paradigm outside of white norms.  I can’t think of a better definition than SACRED to describe the teachers, mentors, parents, family, extended family, scholars, friends who see the beauty of black children and families, and choose to portray that back, despite the world that constantly suggests otherwise. I can tell you that it is ONE HELLUVA thing to step out in a world each day that tries to minimize my expertise, question my awareness/consciousness/ability… but then come home to a partner, sistafriend, auntie, uncle, pops, momma, or neighbor who tells me to keep on keeping on, moves me past the toxic energy of dumb folk, and reminds me of who and what I am.  One Helluva Thing!  Though this book ain’t worth the paper it is printed on, its ignorance did remind me to always remember what Black Love is and does.

This little children’s book simply doesn’t pass mustard for representing black children and families.  You need to see us before you can write about us.  There are authors who represent exactly the kind of love I have described and who do achieve a rewriting for black children.  I will turn my attention to them now.

Cyber Monday 2013 & the Inanity of Whiteness

I did a lot of babysitting as soon as I hit my teens.  From early October to December 24, I exploited the fiction of Santa Claus as much as possible.  While I understand many people’s animosity and hesitation with this concept, it made my babysitting days so much easier.  You can really work that fiction to get kids to behave.  A recent lecture by Dr. Nteri Nelson filmed by Paul Gibson, however, has helped me to reach deeper understandings of the ancestral connections that have drawn black folk to Christianity, celebrations of Christmas, and Santa Claus and other holiday emblems.

Given the African American draw to Christmas and our Black Buying Power, it seems like the endless Christmas animations, the Hallmark movies with their messages about love/family/rebirth, the window displays, the Santa Claus images and look-alikes, the flying angels everywhere, the traditional children’s stories, and all this Christmas paraphernalia wouldn’t all be so damn white.  Last year, on Black Friday and Cyber Monday alone, African Americans spent more time browsing online for toys than any other group.  It seems like a good capitalist would capitalize on all that and do a full-blown black-up of all children’s marketing.  But capitalism is not logical and it is never just about making money.

ST_PERFECT12I recently watched the movie, The Perfect Holiday, where Morris Chestnut was a shopping mall Santa who enchanted three little kids and their mother (played by Gabrielle Union; the added bonus as Terrence Howard as a rat, evil dwarf, etc).  Morris Chestnut is one Santa no one would need to make me believe in!  Clearly, capitalists don’t care about black people’s dollars; otherwise we’d see family movies like this everywhere. Instead, this year’s blockbuster will be a black man dressing up as a black woman who then dresses up as Santa (i.e., Madea) for a 2013 Christmas Coon Extravaganza.  The images that we see and don’t see of black people during these holidays are not motivated by the economics of neoliberalism alone; these economics are nested quite snugly with maintaining a white lens and a white world, a reality 100s of years in the making given the history Dr. Nelson provides us.  Like I said, if it was all about money, BLACK WOMEN would be the center of all marketing campaigns since we are the ones with the most buying power.   You know something deep is going on when NO ONE tells you this.  I am not suggesting that buying power and wealth are the same thing and that black women and communities have wealth in the United States.  It just seems telling to me that American consumerism functions according to a logic that deliberately omits black faces but exploits their cultures and dollars.

Outside of home, friends, and family, the many white intellectuals, scholars, teachers, and so-called “educated” people who I work with still won’t get— don’t want to get— why black folk focus so much time and energy on constructing positive images of ourselves and releasing all the negative.  Truth is, we don’t have time to worry about these people who don’t want to understand this.  They just aren’t worth it. This December, however, I am doing what I often do when I am looking for images and concepts that DON’T destroy black children and families when a dominant white image/mindset completely saturates every turn you make: I turn to African American children’s literature.  Beginning with this year’s Cyber Monday, this black woman is spending her ancestral time/energy and her Black Buying Power looking for African American children’s literature that offers real and soul-sustaining Black lenses and belief systems about this time of year.  I’ll share my favorites in the coming days and weeks.