Pickaninny…”Souvenir of the South”

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.

We evolve.

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

We evolve.

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.

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What The Cotton Pickin’ Hell?

Today I awoke to the anticipating scream “It’s field trip day!” The hot cup of tea, a peace-offering for waking me up on my day of hookie and a token of appreciation for agreeing to chaperone his adventure, kept me from sending the offspring back to sleep. Verbally, of course; I do not resort to physical punishment for such trivial things. Now, had he spilled the hot tea on me…I woulda straight…

I digress.

I arrived at Historic Oakview (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) significantly early and took the time to catch up on some non-required reading. By the time the bus arrived I was oblivious to where we were and what the next few hours would entail. As soon as the fourth graders filed into single file line and marched up the hill, past the goats and horse stable, I was sure what we were in store for.

The first presenter went on for about thirty minutes about life on the farm around 1825. “This is the first building ever built on the land.” We stood in the ancient kitchen and the students made butter from cream, learned about fetching water and practiced doing laundry on a washboard. I remembered my grandmother using a washboard long after the introduction of the washing machine.

I pulled the young woman aside at the end of her message as the students sniffed through the herb garden and politely asked her a few questions about her work on the farm. Then I got to the point. Why isn’t this referred to as a plantation? She replied that plantations needed to have at least twenty slaves and 1000 acres, they only had 900 acres.

If sleeping with 100 men made me a ho, but I only slept with 90, what would I be?

“So you did have slaves?”

“Yes, but just ten.” Before I could reply, I caught the eye of my dependent and decided to drop it. He had already given me a lecture on approved behavior in the presence of his friends.

The second presenter was given the daunting task of delivering a message on cotton picking on the farm around 1860. She gave me an awkwardly forced smile as I entered the gin house and I wondered if the presenters had walkie-talkied each other like Joe Clark in Lean On Me (code black in the orange shirt, I repeat, code black in the orange shirt). “Who wants to be a cotton picker?” My soul shivered at hearing this question and the way the words sounded coming from her mouth. Of the twenty-five students, all minority, one elected not to be a cotton pickin’ cotton picker.

One.

“First I have to tell you about the five B’s to picking cotton.” Back-your back is going to hurt from all the bending. Bugs-mosquitoes, wasps, hornets, beetles, worms, spiders…there are all kinds of bugs in the fields. Burn-it is awfully hot and you are going to get sunburned because you have to spend long hours in the fields. Blood-there are thorns and seeds and hulls that cut your fingers and cause them to bleed and blister. Boring-it is so monotonous doing the same thing over and over again, day in and day out. “So who still wants to pick some cotton for me?”

Am I missing something here? Can I add a few B words to this lecture?

Beat-you are subjected to beatings if you do not comply with your work. Broke-this is not a paid position; you are not applying to be a farm hand but a slave. Bondage-need I say more. Black-look around at the pictures of the people picking the cotton and tell me what they all have in common.

When I tucked Cameron in bed tonight, I asked why he didn’t raise his hand to be a cotton picker.

“Didn’t Lincoln abolish slavery?”

“Yes, but you don’t have to be a slave to pick cotton. You can do whatever you want.”

“Exactly. And I do not want to pick cotton.”