When asked about the little black girl carrying the rag doll, I always refer to her as a mammy doll. I smile at her as she shows rows of bright white teeth and boasts bright red bows at the end of several wiry plats. I smile at my possession of her, but her possession is nothing to smile about and then again it is.
She is not a mammy and I know why I call her so. It is easier to call her that than to refer to her as she really is. It is easier to ignore the reality. Similarly to how for many years, I ignored the reality of my ancestry. Easy. It’s easier to say “I’m Black.” It’s easier to “check one”. Mammy sounds like mommy and mommy is easy.
She is a pickaninny.
The word itself makes a tad bit of vomit emerge at the back of my throat (what my children refer to as baby barf). Pickaninny. Little nigger. It reminds me of “picnic”, a word that is rumored to originate from slave lynchings when Whites would “pick a nigger” and hang him or her during community gatherings. By the way, snopes.com and urbanlegends.com both deny any truth in the derogatory root of the word.
In truth, I despise the description of Rosie because I have used the word before. I was about eight when after five or six elementary taunts of “white girl” I shouted back at my tormentor. “PICKANINNY!”
Swings stopped swinging. Hula-hoops stopped spinning. Jump ropes stopped turning. Balls stopped bouncing. Time stood still on the playground of Lewis Adams Elementary School in Tuskegee, Alabama. Then with eyes as big as Rosie’s, she whispered with a broken voice louder than I had shouted, “You’re a racist.”
I don’t remember when I first saw Rosie among the tributes to our nation’s racial history and confederate divide. She was fed by cookies from the bellies of mammy dolls and comforted with watermelon slices from her brothers. She lived in the big house on the plantation. She was happy. She was smiling. I was furious.
I understood what she was and what she meant at eight and eight years later. I had felt the pain of calling her name and being called her name. I had felt the confusion in her truth and in that of my own.
Today, she sits on my bookshelf as a testament to evolution. The owners who once found pride in displaying her have evolved in their recognition of her representation as much as the young girl who found shame in her display has evolved in her comprehension of her significance.
Last week, while sifting through flea market wagons full of hidden treasures and obvious trash, I found the sign.
COLORED WAITING ROOM
Above the sign I found the pickaninny eating a slice of watermelon.
SOUVENIR OF THE SOUTH
I thought taking a picture of the artifacts was enough but for six days, the images haunted me. Rosie called out to me to remember her brother. She is lonely in 2012 and longs for her past. She misses mammy.
One night I dreamt that I was at the doctor’s office waiting to be called back and after an hour I asked the receptionist had I been forgotten. She scowled “We called you three times. We thought you were in the White waiting room. We didn’t know you were Colored.”
Today, I returned to the flea market where I found the pieces of history and without hesitation paid the $20 the vendor asked. Rosie seems to smile a bit brighter among them and I think I do too.