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


  1. Loved the story. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Teach Paulette! I can always count on learning something new every time I read your blog. Love the story and the song. I had never heard the story before. I can always count on some good laughs, too. Mama was not only stylin', but she was hilarious.

  3. Hi Frannie and Vanessa,

    Glad you enjoyed the story. It was a lot of fun to shoot and I'll be posting more pictures of the girls tomorrow.

  4. That Letty is something else! I love the fact that Letty was able to stand her own ground with the other girls.

    Her mother's reaction to her hair reminds me of a scene from my childhood.


  5. Hi Debbie,

    I think that every girl whose mother believes unnaturally straight hair is the aesthetic ideal has had that moment growing up. My mother would fix my hair in ringlets, but my hair would always frizz up before the special occasion was over. I felt ashamed of my frizzy hair until I got a summer job at a Jewish sleep away camp. Then I met a lot of "white" girls whose hair was frizzier than mine!

  6. Hi Limbe Dolls,

    My Dippity-do experimentation at age 8 gelled firm my naturally curly, virgin hair. This took place on a Saturday evening, forcing my mother to wash the pink gelatinous substance from my hair in order to comb it for church the next day. Only pretend or real sickness kept me from attending church with my mother.

    My hair remained naturally curly until it was unnaturally straighted with a "warm" straightening comb at age 10. It was only after I insisted, begged, and pleaded, that my mother allowed me to get it straightened like the other girls.


  7. Hi Debbie,

    I remember Dippity-do -- noxious stuff. My mother bought some once but I don't think it yielded the results she was hoping for. After that we stuck with the Apex and Dixie Peach bergamont hair dressing oil.

  8. Love this Paulette! The doll dioramas are utterly fantastic!

  9. Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for the comment. Back before Katrina I had a serious eBay addiction. It is good to finally be in a place where I can put all the toys I bought to use.