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.


“Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday”

This year, my father gave me money for Christmas since he seems to have given up all hope of buying me clothes, jewelry, electronics, etc.  After I opened the envelope, here is what our conversation was like:

You know you put money in this envelope, right?  I wasn’t gon tell you in case it was a mistake but I figured I better be honest with it bein Christmas and all.

Oh, naw, baby, that was a mistake.  Gimme that money back.

Ima put it in the mail for you right now.  I hope it get to you, cuz you knooooow how the post office be.

That’s pretty typical banter between my father and me, especially since he is becoming more and more like Fred Sanford with each passing year.  The banter has ALWAYS been like this, it pops off very quickly, and Christmas was never an exception.  The monetary gifts are a new thing but the wit, love, and laughter have been constant.

Many academics who I know will tell me that my nostalgia is romantic or maybe even essentialist.  But these people are not usually Black.  Or, if they are, I don’t really like or respect them very much (I may as well keep being honest).  Whether or not I am romantic or essentialist, I don’t really care about these elitist labels from people who divorce their thinking and intellectual work from everyday, social action and participation in real communities and neighborhoods (college campuses, volunteerism, and nuclear family life are not THAT.)  So I am proud to say that I remember the holidays fondly.  Material scarcity did not conflict with emotional abundance. After all, it didn’t take any money for my father to grant me my one Christmas wish: to let me hear Kurtis Blow perform my favorite Christmas song, the one that got me in trouble in school because those were the only lyrics I memorized:

Now, of course, I was about 8 years old and really excitable.  You have to realize that, for my father, this was quite a sacrifice, because his favorite Christmas song was none other than William Bell’s “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday” and he kept it on rotation all day long too, to my obvious dismay given my emerging tastes.  And I had a lot to say about it too.

Legend has it, according to my father, that my uncle (one of his 7 brothers), could sing this song better than anyone in Alabama. I tend to take that seriously, since my uncles are not ones to give you a compliment when you do NOT deserve it and will, quite forthrightly and loudly, tell you when your skills are lacking.

There were, of course, commercial breaks from my father’s rotation of William Bell’s song.  That was when I would hear Charles Brown’s version of “Merry Christmas, Baby.”

Or… there were also times when I could hear my favorite “old-timey song” (as I called it back then) that my 8-year old self was willing to tolerate without loud objection: Diana Ross and the Supremes doing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Me”:

Now let my aunts, my father’s seven sisters, tell it, ALL of them can sing this song better than anyone anywhere.  I have heard them sing: I think they are right.

Convinced that Charles Brown was a woman with a scratchy voice, I always loved this line, my all-time-favorite Holiday words: “Well, I haven’t had a drink this mo’nin, but I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree…ooooh.”  At eight years old, I had no idea what these words meant but I could recite them.  And I could talk a lot of stuff too about all this holiday music that just sounded way too much like what my father was always playing: Motown, Soul, Blues… just…too… much! Like I said, I was young with questionable musical taste.  But if you were visiting my house, you would hear William Bell playing all day too.  And, before you walked out, you’d be twinkling, all lit up like a Christmas tree, and you might get some banter in between too (once again, I’m just being honest here).

As I closed out my 2012 Winter Solstice observance, I find myself nostalgic and it is a nostalgia of the utmost significance to me: it reminds me that in the midst of the most savage oppression, we can demand and participate in our own humanity.  We can laugh and help a little girl inject her generational, Black aesthetic into the groove and we can create an environment that sounds like love even when the rest of the world won’t sound that for us. These days I see these moments as incredibly radical.   Maybe that’s why my father liked William Bell’s song so much: maybe the challenge really is to make everyday like a holiday.   I’m glad my family gave me a set of memories and dispositions to point me in that alternate direction.