Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Fly in the Buttermilk part 2

Like Letty in the preceding post, I was usually the only black girl in my class. The racial scars I carry from that experience come primarily from running up against the privilege that enables people identified with mainstream culture to ignore or deny the validity of other points of view.  I actually did get into arguments because I knew the story of “The Signifying Monkey” and I insisted that the elephant rather than the lion should be the king of the jungle.  “The Fly in the Buttermilk” therefore represents my take on “The Wonder Years.” 

I believe there is intrinsic value in stories like “The Signifyin’ Monkey” that viewers won’t get from anything on TV.  Further, I believe that knowing stories like “The Signifyin’ Monkey” is what enabled Letty/ me to stand up for herself.  If the only stories I knew had been the ones that came on TV in the 1960s, I would not have had the psychological resources to “flip the script” on the Lorraines of the world.  When Lorraine calls Letty a “monkey,” there are definite racial undertones, but like me, Letty had internalized a positive image of monkeys because of the Signifyin’ Monkey story.  Better yet, the story teaches that a person with less power can win out over a more powerful bully through clever speech.


Mama was an off brand doll I picked up at K-Mart around 2004.  My parents made many financial sacrifices to send us to private schools so we had an old Rambler station wagon rather than a snazzy Chevy convertible when I was small.  Although my mother wasn't able to indulge her penchant for luxury cars until later, she often wore Grace Kelly style scarves.

Cindy befriended me in 1968 when I single-handedly integrated Ravensworth Elementary School in Fairfax county Virginia.  We didn’t live in the neighborhood but my mother taught at the school so she got permission to enroll me in the first grade there.  There were some little boys who called me the N word on the playground but I didn’t encounter any other racial issues.  I have much more vivid memories of eating tuna fish sandwiches on play dates at Cindy’s house.

Lorraine was my nemesis in the first grade.  Our teacher believed we didn’t get along because we were both bossy.  I didn’t like to think of myself as bossy so I felt vindicated the day Lorraine got busted for copying my paper on silk worms.  I had previously attended a Montessori school where we had hatched silk worms as a science experiment so I was the resident expert on the subject.

Judy was one of the prettiest girls in my second grade class.  We were also in Brownies and Girl Scouts together.  Since most families had two or more kids, everyone thought it was strange that she was an only child.

Angie broke her arm during this shoot, poor thing.  The real life Angie was an Italian American girl in my second grade class.  We got into trouble many times for talking and giggling during class.

Valerie was a heavyset girl in my class between second and fourth grade.  In those days there was usually only one fat kid in the class so Valerie got teased a lot because of her size.

Margie was such a tomboy that even on the rare occasions when she came to school in a dress she wore jeans underneath.  She spent a lot of time drawing airplanes and swastikas in her notebooks.  We were in the same class in third and fourth grade.

Mandy had interesting memories of playing ball in Moscow’s Red Square when she was a small child.  In real life she was not a sycophant like the Mandy in my story.  Also her hair was a darker red than the doll’s, more auburn.  I was invited to her birthday party when we were in the fifth grade and I was amazed that her cake was a series of train cars. 

Storytellers adapt folk tales to meet the needs of different audiences in different circumstances so one important lesson I learned from African American oral literature was that any story can be re-interpreted.  Thus Letty takes the Little Black Sambo story and uses it to ridicule Lorraine’s pretensions -- “Well here, you can wear my shoes on your ears so you’ll be the grandest tiger in the jungle.”  In the Civil Rights era, Little Black Sambo was reviled as a negative representation of back people.  Helen Bannerman’s 1899 tale is shot through with the prejudices of British imperialism, which disparaged all non-Europeans as “black.”  American editions of the story included grotesque, minstrel-like illustrations rather than Bannerman’s original drawings, and American animated cartoon adaptations of the book were virulently racist.  Still, I grew up with that book because when it was banned from the library in the school where my mother taught, she brought it home. 

I never felt that Little Black Sambo was a negative representation of people like me because I knew the book was set in India.  Bannerman used the Hindi word, ghee to refer to the pool of melted butter that Little Black Sambo’s mother uses to make tiger-striped pancakes at the end of the story.  Like the Signifyin’ Monkey, Bannerman portrays Little Black Sambo as a trickster figure who uses clever speech to outwit the tigers.  African American author, Julius Lester preserved this aspect of the tale in Sam and the Tigers, his anti-racist re-telling of Little Black Sambo.  


Letty was the flower girl in a wedding party I bought from Toys R Us in the early 90s.  Wal-Mart had all of the other girl dolls manufactured in China seven or eight years ago.

There were so many different blondes and redheads that I turned some of them into boys.  I designated the Angie doll as a Latina because of her dark hair and eyes but Wal-Mart apparently believed that adding a black doll to the collection would be as bad for sales as the proverbial fly in the buttermilk.  

À Bientôt

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Fly in the Buttermilk

“Reach in my purse and get some lotion, baby.  Your knees are ashy,” said Letty’s mama as she steered the car through the quiet, tree-lined streets of Cindy’s neighborhood.


“These white folks sure have some beautiful homes.  That’s why your daddy and I are sending you to that fancy school.  If you study hard, one day you can have a house like this too.”

“Make sure you play nice with the other girls.  And don’t run around and sweat ‘til your hair turns back like you did at your cousin’s birthday party last month."

"You can’t go around looking like a savage in front of these people.  It’s a wonder Cindy’s mama even let her invite a colored child to her party so mind your manners.”

As soon as Mama stopped the car, Letty opened the door and hopped out.  For weeks Cindy had been telling her every detail of the party plans and she couldn’t wait to see the fairy cakes they would be serving.  People in her neighborhood made their own birthday cakes instead of buying them from the bakery.  Letty ran up the front steps with the box that held Cindy’s present and Cindy opened the door before she could ring the bell. 

“I’m so glad you could come, Letty.  It wouldn’t have been any fun without you.”

After cake and ice cream and pin the tail on the donkey, the girls went out to play in Cindy’s large backyard.  Her daddy had put up a new jungle gym for her and all the girls were eager to try it out. 

Lorraine ran to grab the swings before anyone else could claim them.  She saved one for Mandy who always followed her around.

Margie, the tomboy was the first one up the ladder and down the slide, but soon



and Letty joined in the game. 

Angie and Valerie had stayed behind to help clear the table so they came last.

“Hurry up fatso!” called Lorraine.  “You shouldn’t have eaten so much.” 


Then she and Mandy started making the oink, oink noises they made every time they passed Valerie in the lunchroom.

“Some people only got invited because Cindy had to invite all the girls in our class,” Lorraine said to Mandy as they raced to see who could swing the highest.


Letty started up the ladder to take another turn on the slide but then turned upside down and hung by her knees.

“What are you, a little monkey?”  Lorraine sneered, but Letty just said “Yes!”   She was practicing to be in the circus one day.

Lorraine climbed up to the top of the jungle gym and gave a loud roar.

“GRRRR!  I’m the lion.  I’m the king of the jungle  -- the jungle gym, get it?  GRRRR!”

Lorraine always wanted to boss the other girls, but Letty righted herself and started chanting

“You big overgrown pussycat,
Don’t you roar,
Or I’ll hop up there
And -- whip you like the elephant did.” 

“What on earth are you talking about?”  said Lorraine.


“The lion heard that the elephant was badmouthing his family but instead of asking the elephant about the rumors, he charged up and picked a fight with him.  The elephant whipped the lion for the rest of the day and they still don’t know how the lion got away – everyone knows that story.”  

“Well then I’m a tiger,” said Lorraine “GRRRR!”  The other girls shrieked in mock fear but Letty said


“Well here, you can wear my shoes on your ears so you’ll be the grandest tiger in the jungle.  And then you can chase the other tigers ‘round and ‘round the tree until you melt into a pool of butter.”

The other girls laughed and Lorraine started to turn very red.

“Well which animal would you nominate as king, smarty pants?” said Mandy.

“Babar the elephant, of course.  Valerie has the most majestic size so she should play Babar.”

Letty gave Valerie a boost up the ladder. 

Then Valerie took a seat on the “throne” at the top of the jungle gym and reined as king for the rest of the afternoon.


“Lord you look like Aunt Hagar’s child!” said Letty’s mother when she came to pick her up after the party.  “How am I going to get that hoorah’s nest straightened out before church tomorrow?  I hope you at least remembered to mind your P’s and Q’s around those white folks.”

“I’m the signifyin’ monkey, Mama” said Letty “and if they fool with me I’ll sic the elephant on them again.”


Here isOscar Brown, Jr.'s rendition of "The Signifyin' Monkey:"

À Bientôt

Thursday, June 23, 2011


One of the things I have come to appreciate in the short time since I connected with the doll community is the pervasive spirit of generosity I have found among doll collectors.  I have received dolls, books, and sound advice on everything from HTML tags to setting up an on-line store from fellow doll enthusiasts.  The Kenja Company that I profiled in a post on “My First Doll Show” manifested this same spirit of generosity by sending me a 15” My BFF doll as a thank you.  Recently, the little lady whose class schedule kept my friend, Ree from meeting me at that doll show turned two so I passed the My BFF doll along to her.  Here she is with her new best friend:

Miss Lady asked Mama to help her open the bright blue box the doll shipped in but she pulled the package out of the box herself and exclaimed over the blue bow I had used to decorate the tissue paper wrapping.  I think she has plans for it to become a hair accessory.  LOL!

Next she opened the tissue paper, revealing the doll’s dainty feet encased in shiny pink mary janes.  A girl can always count on her BFF to lend her a sharp pair of shoes, right?  If only they had fit Miss Lady’s feet, I don’t think BFF would have gotten them back.

Finally BFF emerged from her wrappings and received welcoming hugs.  Miss Lady examined every detail of her new friend with great interest, stroking her soft hair, and admiring her dress.  It seems that the human fascination with the mysteries that lie under dolls’ dresses is instinctive because before you know it, Miss Lady had lifted BFF’s skirt and was tugging at her bloomers.  I remarked that she did not have a belly button to keep the conversation from descending “below the belt.”  The bloomers, dress, and socks, came off, however, so Mama and I suggested that BFF might like to take a bath.

Wrong answer!  Miss Lady was about to trot upstairs and immerse BFF when we explained that the tub was too big for her and she would probably drown in there.  Instead BFF had a bath in the shipping box.  Then the two friends ducked inside Miss Lady's play tent for a few moments of private conversation.

Looking at the My BFF dolls as an adult, I thought they were cute, but I had no inkling of the joy and wonder they could bring to a child.  The Kenja Company’s deceptively simple design is perfect for enchanting little ladies by giving them a friend in their own image whom they can nurture and love. 

Miss Lady has an impressive vocabulary for someone who just turned two (the classes must be paying off) but two simple words came un-bidden as she and BFF waved goodbye at the close of my visit – “Thank You.” 

Thank you to the Kenja Company and to all my BFFs in the doll community!

À Bientôt

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Firehouse #5

“You’re just now getting in?  Must have been some night!” Pops said to Pepe.  The other guys looked at him expectantly, but Pepe just smiled and went to his locker.

“Yesterday West Park citizens presented the mayor with a petition to keep their local firehouse open but things aren’t looking good for Firehouse #5, one of the oldest stations in the city…” broke in the radio announcer, sparing Pepe from the Inquisition.

“The Historic Preservation society has suggested turning Firehouse #5 into a firefighter’s museum named after Antoine C. Green, a firefighter who died fighting a fire in a foreclosed house last year, but West Park neighbors say the number of vacant properties in the community increases their need for a local station.  The next closest fire station is more than four miles away…”

“Turn that noise off,” said Randolph.  He was the godfather of ‘Toine’s oldest son and he still blamed himself for the accident that took his friend’s life.

“Do you really think they will shut us down?” Youngblood asked Pops.

“It’s looking that way, son.”

“Dang!  I just got this job.”

“Even if they don’t shut us down this ‘round, the governor is trying to cut our pension and health care benefits.  At the rate things are going, I’ll never be able to afford to retire.”

“Well I’m not voting for that jerk again,” said Steve, biceps rippling as he tossed off another set of curls.

“What do you mean, ‘again?’  Did you actually vote for him the first time?” called Arsenio from his bunk.

“I was young.  I didn’t know any better.”

“Well I may be a rookie but I’m old enough to know that if they close this firehouse, homeowners in West Park will have to pay through the nose for insurance.  When they closed the firehouse in South Lake, my grandmother had to get a special policy through Lloyds of London.  None of the regular carriers would insure her home.”

"Nobody cares about the little man any more."

“Yeah, you don’t hear our governor volunteering to cut his salary.”

“Right, and the state legislators just voted themselves a pay increase!”

Pops was so distracted that Steve spanked him and Youngblood in a rare upset at Scrabble and even Aresenio’s new corrido about a band of hypersexed bomberos couldn’t lift the mood in Firehouse #5.

That night an alarm roused the firefighters from their troubled dreams.  They raced to put out a house fire in West Park. 

Apparently there had been a party in progress when the D.J.’s massive sound system overwhelmed the antiquated wiring in the house. 

Sparks were flying and the acrid odor of fried electrical circuits filled the air when they arrived.  Randolph and Pepe aimed the water canons on the truck to keep the fire from spreading to the neighboring houses.

Meanwhile Arsenio checked to make sure everyone had gotten out safely. 

“Stand clear.  Looks like the roof is about to come down,” Pops cautioned his men,

but then one of the partygoers rushed up saying “My roommate is trapped in there!  She was in the bathroom upstairs because she wasn’t feeling well.  I was about to go up and check on her when the fire broke out.”

“I’ll go get her Pops,” volunteered Youngblood.

“No, it’s too dangerous.  You’ll never find her in time.”

“My Uncle used to live in this house.  I know exactly where that bathroom is.  I can be in and out in no time,” said Youngblood, donning his gas mask. 

Then he turned and disappeared into the smoke.

The partygoers and Youngblood’s bunkmates watched anxiously as the flames shot higher and higher. 

A series of explosions sent a shower of sparks blazing across the night sky.  The old house creaked and shuddered ominously,

but just then, Youngblood emerged from the house carrying the young woman over his shoulder.  The firefighters placed her gently on a stretcher and helped the paramedics carry her to the waiting ambulance. 

“Do you know who that is?” exclaimed one of the paramedics.  “That’s the governor’s daughter!  What’s she doing in this neighborhood?” 

“The governor has pushed a special appropriation through the legislature to subsidize fire and rescue services across the state.  ‘Hard times call for hard decisions, but the safety of our citizens should always be the first priority.’  The governor went on to commend the heroic firefighters of the Antoine C. Green station in West Park who saved his daughter’s life last month…”

“You done good, ‘Blood,” said Randolph, cracking a broad smile for the first time in almost a year.

À Bientôt