I Found Redemption in a Racist Toy
My niece, Angelique, posted a photo of a ghoulish figurine on Facebook. In the description, she wrote I’ll have to get used to this new one. She looks a hot mess.
“What the hell?” I asked my computer, when the photo came up in my feed.
The she was a bust: head, shoulders, and chest of a demon. Bulging white eyeballs with yellow pupils stared out from a black face. The mouth gaped open, swollen red lips pulled back from the gums, teeth bared like fangs. The monster’s only arm bent at an unnatural angle in front of its mouth, like Frankenstein holding a spoon. I couldn’t tell whether the other arm was broken off, or this was a one-armed fiend.
I had to look away, otherwise this devil would terrorize me in a nightmare.
YouTube videos provided distraction. Fifteen Fashion Hacks to Make You More Attractive. Five Ways You’re Ruining Your Outfit. 5 Style Tips That No One Tells You! Midway into “always cuff your sleeves,” the demon’s face began to seep back into my consciousness, and by the time the stylist demonstrated how to half-tuck your shirt, the video was obscured by the image of swollen red lips stretched back from teeth bared like fangs.
I clicked back to Angelique’s post and rested my fingertips on the keyboard.
Wait a minute … it’s not some devil … it’s a person.
I leaned closer.
God. It’s a woman.
A racist depiction of a black woman.
I wanted to throw up.
I felt exposed. I was the monster. Mirrors distorted my reflection and tricked me into thinking I was a woman, while the world saw the real me, an ogre with a twisted limb frozen in some macabre pantomime. I felt powerless to reclaim my flesh-and-blood womanhood.
Powerlessness brings with it an insistence on immediate action, to deflect attention from emotions. Research, Dawn. Put that master’s degree to work. Use your intelligence to rebuild your power. Find out who created this atrocity and why.
Refseek dot com, an academic research browser, led me to an auction website specializing in racist collectibles — a combination of words that collided with my naïveté. Did the buyers collect racism in their homes and dust it off when they wanted to enjoy it?
Thinking maybe Angelique’s find was a version of Mammy, I scrolled through that section, row after row of Mammies: ash trays, salt shakers, cookie jars, fishing lures, candles, rag dolls, cutting boards. Too many, they blurred one into the next. I sped past the Mammies, paused at the beginning of the lawn jockey section, before whipping through the postcard section, then movie posters. By the time I got to the last page of the auction site, I longed wistfully for Mammy. In her dependable white apron, she began to feel less like an assault and more like an annoyance — some distant relative you’re embarrassed to be related to, because she always shows up in a damn head rag. I succumbed to comparative debasement. Mammy wasn’t as bad as a pancake-pushing Aunt Jemima, which wasn’t as bad as a watermelon-slurping pickaninny, which wasn’t as bad as a photo of four naked black toddlers sitting on a riverbank — captioned “Alligator Bait.”
Dazed, I forgot what I was looking for in the first place.
A click back to Facebook reminded me. The monster still held a place at the top of Angelique’s page. I winced and grabbed the edge of the screen, poised to slam the laptop shut.
White girls at my grade school tied their straight hair in twin ponytails with pretty bows. They smiled pretty smiles, but not at me. I was the colored girl. I had a crush on a boy who sat in front of me. He twisted around with a note in his hand. When I reached for it, he turned into a horror movie victim — recoiled from bulging lips, yellow eyes, bared fangs — and passed the note to a blonde classmate behind me.
On the auction website, I finally found the bust — a mechanical “Jolly Nigger Bank,” designed for children. A back view showed a lever. Push the lever; the arm moved up to the open mouth, dropping a coin through the lips, as the eyes rolled back in the head. Close-up inspection showed it was one-armed on purpose, not broken. Circa 1890. Cast iron, made to last. The bottom read, “Manufactured by The J&E Stevens Co. Cromwell Conn. USA.”
A piggy bank, purchased by an ordinary daddy, who set the gift on his kitchen table and showed his precious sugarplum how to push the lever. When Jolly Nigger swallowed her penny, sugarplum clapped.
My revenge fantasies played in 3D and surround sound. Smash that cast iron bigotry over the daddy’s skull. Bludgeon him with that piggy bank. Revel in his choked-out pleas for mercy.
In the end, revenge felt as sickening as shame. What I really craved was for him to say, “I’m sorry.”
Won’t someone in charge please say I’m sorry?
Absent an apology, I ended up infected with the hatred J&E Stevens fired into its cast iron toy. A father plunked down coins to buy the trinket for his daughter, and I reeled from his contempt a hundred years later. I loathed the daughter who delighted in the gift, as deeply as my classmate despised me the moment he passed his note to the blonde girl. I hated the endless supply of Mammies and Aunt Jemimas and lawn jockies and Jolly Niggers on the auction website. I hated myself for being born the object of hatred, and then I had to reason, research, and revenge my way back to feeling human.
I was a hot mess.
My computer chimed a message from Angelique. I clicked.
She’d posted another photo. “I’ve given Miss Hot Mess a makeover. Presenting Jazzy.” Angelique had wrapped pink beads around the Frankenstein arm and plopped a pink bow atop the head.
I fought back a lump in my throat.
Where I had seen a demon, she’d seen Jazzy.
Where I’d seen racism, she’d seen Jazzy.
Where I’d seen contempt, she’d seen Jazzy.
These parallel realities called for a re-read of Angelique’s initial post. She said she’d spied the castoff on the sidewalk, on a trip to the corner market. She’d picked it up and taken it home to join Mammy figures she’d rescued over the years. (Decades earlier, I’d collected them, too, to get them off the market. After my interest had waned, I’d gotten rid of them, slipping them right back onto the market. Now this, an unwelcome affection for Mammy, bridging generations to create a bond between my niece and me.) Angelique’s post read I’ll have to get used to this new one. She looks a hot mess.
There’s a world of difference between looking a hot mess and being one.
Day after week after month after year of my walk through life, the sun had risen on hopelessness and set on cynicism. Then my niece blew me out of orbit.
Tomorrow and all the tomorrows to follow, Jazzy will light my horizon — her beauty revealed, her humanity restored.
Angelique didn’t transform a racist collectible. She transformed me.