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A White Kid with a Black Doll
© 2019 Susan Newark
In a Ken Burns’ Jazz episode, Wynton Marsalis once said (while blinking back tears at having been asked the question) that “race” is the thing you must do to heal the tribe. It’s the dragon which the epic hero must slay to make the kingdom well again. But in modern time, our culture’s potential epic hero has been replaced by a raging antithesis spewing so much fire that sometimes it’s hard to see any hope for healing beyond the flames, most especially for people of color.
Having grown up the happy daughter of European parents who met in Canada in 1956 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1964, I can’t complain of an underprivileged childhood. We never had much money, but we always squeezed out enough for essentials, vacations, and holiday presents. It is one of these childhood presents which I was reminded of today upon seeing a new documentary called Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. I read Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye in college thirty years ago. In it, a young black girl named Pecola wishes for the blue eyes she sees in the white dolls whose culture represents a more privileged world.
When I was a child, for Christmas one year, my parents gave me a box containing two dolls. One was white; the other was black. This act was not some statement that my mother (who did the shopping) was trying to make. She had no ulterior motive. I’m sure she didn’t even think about it—which is, of course, the whole point.
My Parents in the late 1950’s
I loved these two dolls. I did not prefer one to the other. They were twin sisters, born into our family simultaneously on Christmas morning, 1960.
They sat by the breakfast table with me. They snuggled together in their pram. They went on vacation with me. They watched me play when I wasn’t playing with them.
Summer 1961 at Cape Cod
I played with these dolls for as long as I played with dolls.
My childhood was easy compared to Pecola’s. I don’t even pretend to comprehend fully the indignities that people of color have suffered. But thanks to cultural heroines like Toni Morrison, I can try. She once said in an interview that racism is something deficient in certain white people, something that prevents their societal view from being whole, something THEY need to fix.
During the Obama administration, for discussion purposes, I asked my college students to write down what race our president was. Most wrote “black” or “African-American.” A very few noted that he is half-white.
I would like to tell all people of color that, amidst the publicized resurgence of racial strife (which I know has never actually gone away), those of us who are appalled by the current political atmosphere totally resent the racists who are giving us a bad name, because we were brought up by people like my mother, to whom the term “race” meant what only one of my twenty students answered in class that day when asked about President Obama’s race: HUMAN.