The Element of Surprise
8th January 2016
By Pamela Lewis, author of Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City (forthcoming in March 2016)
It’s a few days after Christmas. Videos of children frenziedly shucking wrapping paper, ribbon and boxes for the gifts held inside fill my Facebook and Instagram feed with intentions to warm hearts and elicit joy. My heart yields to the endearing spectacles of cuteness overload, temporarily anesthetizing the nagging ache in my soul that subsides only in moments like this. Just yesterday, after having had a few days to nurse the feeling almost away, as I had chosen to not spend my well-deserved teacher holiday break thinking about the many instances that would cause such a flare up, it was back at it again. Tamir Rice’s killer would not be indicted. I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised, but with all the media attention, the protests, somehow I had been fooled into believing in a different outcome. Beautifully wrapped presents can be deceiving. I had been expecting something sparkly, but unwrapped dirt-tasting chewing gum instead.
Annoyed that I had been forced to confront our nation’s ugliest scar during the most wonderful time of the year, I took to Facebook to bask in some holiday cheer, and as I already reported, the beauty of innocent children prevailed, and my heartache waned temporarily. Until—yep, there had to be an “until.” Until, I watched a video of two adorable little white girls unwrapping gifts from “Uncle Seth and Aunt Cynthia,” as their mother stated on the video. All hope of something sparkly gone at the sight of two brown baby doll faces staring back at them. The older girl, first genuinely confused, then, obviously irritated at the thought of a black doll as a gift. Showing the gift to her mother, she tilts her little head, giving her mom a face as if to say, “Seriously, mom?” When her mom continues with a straight face, she immediately puts on her big girl britches and feigns gratitude, though her disgust makes her portrayal hardly believable. Her baby sister on the other hand, makes no qualms about her repulsion. She begins to cry white tears of self-pity, which soon become fury, rejecting the doll all together by throwing it back into the bag. Included in this video are the sounds of their mother’s guffaws, suggesting that despite Uncle Seth’s and Aunt Cynthia’s attempt toward teaching tolerance, she would use their gift as a gag, a trick: dirt-tasting chewing gum. Her decision to film their reaction, indicative of her expectation of let down, spoke volumes as to what she taught and didn’t teach her children; her choice to laugh rather than to use their response as a teachable moment toward tolerance and inclusion suggestive of her own belief in white supremacy. It seemed Uncle Seth and Aunt Cynthia were well aware of their sister’s archaic ideologies, and decided to confront it, once and for all.
It had only been the second time I had ever even heard of a white person giving a black doll to a white little girl, yet within that same hour, I’d spotted in my news feed several white dolls under trees inside the homes of black families. The first time I heard of a white person doing something so “ridiculous” was in a story that my former co-teacher had shared. As she recalled, her mother bought one of her fellow white classmates a black doll for her birthday.
“What happened when you gave your friend the doll at her party?” I asked, eager to know their reaction.“They laughed,” she recalled, smoothing her hair, and chuckling a bit herself. “They laughed.”
Choosing blackness was laughable to white folk. Meanwhile, we chose whiteness: dolls for our kids, weave for our heads, contacts for our eyes, bleach for our skin, all of the time. Though my co-teacher never understood her mother’s purpose for buying a black doll, she, like Aunt Cynthia and Uncle Seth, whether intentionally or not, forced my co-teacher’s classmates to confront the truth about themselves, and the world we live in; gift-giving has that ability.
Still bummed about the video and the lack of indictment, I turned off the television and logged off of Facebook, immersing myself in long abandoned household chores. The pile of mail that was busting the seams of the bin that contained it was calling my name. A parcel with maroon Fordham University letterhead arrived. I feverishly ripped through the envelope, anxious to see what was inside. I knew the Fordham Press Spring 2016 catalog was due, and I had been informed that my book would be the lead title. I oohed and ahhed at the cover art of the catalog, which gleamed with images of twinkling lights. I flipped open my sparkly gift and there my book was on the very first page, the image I had posed for, my face out of view, just my more casual than business tee-shirt and blazer combination, and the two dolls that my brown hands held up toward the reader. One can faintly make out the name Phyllis on my shirt, the first on the list of names of black women writers paid homage to in one hundred percent cotton. Identical in everything but color, and positioning, the dolls stared back at the reader, my take on the Clark Doll Experiment of 1939. Instead of putting the dolls at equal distances from the reader, however, the doll is thrust toward the reader’s gaze, forcing the reader to focus on her, leaving the white doll behind, the camera lens intentionally leaving the latter a blur. The words, “Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City” and my name in bold white letters. I knew the catalog had been sent to others. I imagined their surprise.
This is a special time that we live in, one in which historical moments are being born, deep emotions are felt, and tragic possibilities are imaginable all within surprising moments of hope. In many ways, we are still held down by a horrid history, trapped in white supremacist thinking. Yet, we can always find comfort in knowing that there will always be those who seek to confront ugly truths, to challenge tradition, and who fight every day to shed this awful legacy of injustice. We are not alone. Rest in Power, Tamir.
Pamela Lewis is a teacher in the New York City Department of Education.
Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City
ISBN: 978-0823271412, paper, $19.95