Revisiting “Is Poppy A Black American?” During Black History Month

5 Feb

 I first started working on this piece when my older daughter, Leni, was five years old.  At sixteen now, she has a more formed opinion about her mother’s obsession with race relations, and has even written a few posts for me on WJSS.

little sister, Darla, Poppy, and Leni

little sister, Darla, Poppy, and Leni

“Mommy, I have a secret to tell you,” my then, five-year old daughter Leni exclaimed, as we sat eating lunch in a Pennsylvania pub-style restaurant.

We were on a summer road trip, traveling from Tulsa, Oklahoma where we had lived for several years, to my home state of Connecticut. Leni and her little sister Darla were going to visit their grandpa, their “Poppy.”

Cupping her hand over my ear, Leni whispered…

“Is Poppy a Black American?”

Leni’s secrets were often questions, like, “Mommy, is oh yeah a bad word?”

“Why do you think that about Poppy?” I laughed, but not too hard so she wouldn’t think I was laughing at her. “Is it because of his hair?”

My father has short, curly brown, and now graying, hair. In the 1970’s he was known for his large, moppish Jewfro.

“No, his skin,” Leni answered, with conviction.

My father is white. He has dark hair and brown eyes, but I never thought of his skin as dark and swarthy.

“Well, Leni, Poppy is white, like me. He’s my father,” I answered, holding her hands in mine.

While I sat there mystified by her question, Leni had already lost interest in the topic and ran back to her seat to take another bite of hot dog. But I wasn’t done thinking about our little conversation. Could it be Leni would develop the same interest, or what recently feels is more like an obsession, that I have with connecting with black people?

Leni was at an age where she noticed that people had different skin colors. Her public school had a student body that was over 50% black. Aside from her direct experiences with diversity, I wanted to know if Leni wondered why there were so many black people or references to black culture in her Mommy’s life.

She’d ask questions like, “What color is she?” if I talked about a new friend I’d met.

“Is she brown-skinned or white?” she’d ask.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because,” she answered, as if I could expect my five-year old to articulate exactly why she wanted to know, and how she processed race.

When driving in my car, Leni liked to sing along to the Black-Eyed Peas, Prince, and Alicia Keys Cd’s that revolved in my car stereo. There was a phase when she’d request to hear the Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross duet, You’re a Special Part of Me, over and over again. When I volunteered in Tulsa at a local library’s African American Resource Center, Leni would sometimes come with me.

During Black History month that same year, Leni’s pre-kindergarten teacher talked to her class about civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr., and that’s when I heard her start to use the term, “Black American.”

“I need to bring in a picture of a Black American to school,” Leni said.

And not like I was trying to influence her as a parent or anything, but I remembered when I was a young girl, I had read a biography on the singer, Marian Anderson. I had been enchanted with her and her struggle to overcome the racist attitudes toward blacks during her time. That she persevered and succeeded by becoming a famous singer who got to perform at the White House made my heart melt.

I brought up her name to Leni, while I also thought of some contemporary “Black Americans” that she might find inspiring. But Leni wasn’t interested in Russell Simmons like I was—not as gushy about this role model for me—a true entrepreneur, a fashion and music mogul, a philanthropist that I was lucky enough to meet after I founded and directed a non-profit art organization for New York City artists with special needs. She didn’t care that Russell was often called the godfather of hip-hop music for introducing the world to the groundbreaking sound of rap music with artists like Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, and the Beastie Boys. She couldn’t get into who Madame C.J. Walker was, the early 20th century entrepreneur of black hair care products, who was also a philanthropist. And, she didn’t seem impressed when I mentioned Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for United States President. Once I started sounding like a history lesson, she became disinterested.

So, Marian Anderson it was. Leni and I found a biography and photo of her on the internet. Leni pasted the photo onto pink construction paper and decorated it with a colorful crayon border of squiggles and hearts. Then we lucked out. There were postage stamps of Marian Anderson out for Black History Month, which Leni brought in with her framed photo. I think that Marian Anderson made an impression on Leni too, because, a year later, her photo still had a place taped on our refrigerator.

Yet, the next day when we brought Leni’s project to school, I felt humiliated. I walked down the hallway and saw at least four other posters of Marian Anderson, along with the perennially popular George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr., and Harriet Tubman. There were a few contemporary athletes and a few Oprah’s sprinkled in for good measure. Aha, I thought. Here are the few, acceptable recycled images of Black Americans we were fed in History class, while so many other valuable African-American contributors to our history and culture are passed over in lieu of sports, entertainment and hip-hop figures, as if they were the only faces of black America, the only black people that mattered.

As for Leni, she had already found her own truth.

As we pulled into the driveway of my father’s house in Winsted, Connecticut on that summer road trip that started with Leni’s secret question, I asked her, “Well, Leni, are you going to ask Poppy if he’s a Black American?”

“No,” answered back my weary little road warrior.

“Why not?” I begged to know.

“Because, I already know” she said, matter-of-factly. “He is.”

 

11 Responses to “Revisiting “Is Poppy A Black American?” During Black History Month”

  1. Vickie February 5, 2016 at 8:17 am #

    I so love this!

    • Wendy Jane February 5, 2016 at 8:22 am #

      Thank you so much, Vickie. I have to admit this story is one of my personal favorites.:)

      As always, thanks for reading, and supporting!

      Wendy

  2. karen kidd February 5, 2016 at 9:08 am #

    OMG!! Definitely one of my favorites, if not my favorite blog, of yours, Wendy.

    You’ve outdone yourself.

    I am feeling all mushy and flushed with love, and happiness. I swear, I have goosebumps, and a weird feeling throughout my limbs.

    This is simply wonderful.

    Thank you, and Poppy, and Leni, too. Xo.

    • Wendy Jane February 5, 2016 at 9:15 am #

      Awwww, thank you, Karen. Now, I’m feeling all mushy and flushed, too:) I just loved the innocence of her question, and her perspective at that time, and now after all of this time writing about race, I take in the whole false construct of race differently, and perhaps would have answered her question differently. A friend just sent me an article on how Jewish people weren’t considered white for a long, long time, and the author said we still, as it is in our heritage and faith, to love all human beings and practice compassion and kindness here on earth, that in solidarity with our brothers and sisters with brown and black skin, to still not see ourselves as white, but simply as Jewish.

  3. Elissa February 5, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    This was great!! I love it! Thanks for sharing!

    • Wendy Jane February 5, 2016 at 9:15 am #

      Thanks, Elissa! thanks for reading and commenting:)

      Wendy

  4. Youngor February 5, 2016 at 9:26 am #

    so inspiring, thanks for sharing!!
    Am sick in bed reading this, it just brighten my day.
    So beautiful….

    • Wendy Jane February 5, 2016 at 9:46 am #

      Hello Youngor,

      Thank you so much for sharing how the post brightened your day–I really appreciate it. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, and hope you are feeling better soon! Have your son make you some healing tea:)

      Wendy

  5. Mindy Stricke February 5, 2016 at 10:16 am #

    Beautiful post, Wendy!

    • Wendy Jane February 5, 2016 at 10:47 am #

      Thank you, Mindy! I am admiring the work you are doing right now, as well. This story originated during our Tulsa days:)

      Thanks again,
      Wendy

  6. Sherry Gordon February 6, 2016 at 3:33 am #

    Dear Wendy Jane,

    Hi, there, sister Wendy Jane my so, so very dearly special and dearly precious sisterfriend who you are For Always so, so very much!!!!!!! Wow, I sometimes have sleep issues and I couldn’t stay asleep and what a joy to write to you to keep my mind off of the aggravation of not being able to sleep-UGH!!!!!!! FINALLY, I’m able to very joyfully respond to this absolutely beautiful blog post article in which you revisit an old favorite, sister!!!!!! I have been gone a lot and away from my computer and I was just bursting with such very, very eager anticipation to finally be able to respond to your fabulous blog post article with my very heartfelt, detailed, and thorough comment, my so very dear friend!!!!!! Wow, wow, wow and wow and wow and a zillion wows, sisterfriend-I so, so very much love and like this amazing and magnificent blog post article, and the picture which you have featured with this so very cool blog post article is just so wonderful and adorable, sister!!!!!! Wendy Jane, I’m so very honored and blessed with how you, sister, so very lovingly honor and bless our Black History Month, sisterfriend!!!!!! You are for sure my and our true blue sister and so very precious ally, sisterfriend, and you have our backs as black persons, sister!!!!!!! YOU, sister, and this mean so, so very much to me and I just so much love and cherish you and your very gracious and steadfast sisterhood and allyship for me and each and every one of us as black people, sister!!!!!! I’m so very glad, overjoyed, and thrilled that you so sweetly revisited this marvelous blog post article for us as your very grateful and appreciative readers, Wendy Jane!!!!! I love everybody’s comments here so much, too!!!!! We as your very loyal readers so appreciate your very masterful composition in the written word, Wendy Jane!!!!!! Sister, I so, so very much love and like your such so, so very dear lovingly sensitive care and nurturing as a Mommy answering Leni’s questions back then!!!!!! Leni was just so very cute and adorable, and what brilliant questions she had for sure!!!!!! I love her sweetness, innocence, and the innocence of her questions being so wonderful back then here, sister!!!!!! I love how she wondered if her Poppy would have been black!!!!!! I love the picture of your so very dear dad with his beautifully handsome Jewfro back then-I’ve always love Jewfros and other afros on white persons, sister!!!!!!! Your so very dear dad sounds like such a nice dad, person, and just a super Poppy, and from his pictures he looks younger than he is like he could be your older brother and not your dad, sisterfriend(SMILE!!!!!!!). Your so, so very beautiful openness is just so very dear here and in how you interact with your wonderful girls, and how you teach them and pave the way for them to be so very keenly racially and sensitively aware, sister!!!!!!! What a spectacular mom you are in these ways and what great work in helping Leni and Darla also to be such productively proactive anti-racist young persons!!!!! You are doing just so great here, sister!!!!!!! Your entire family is just the greatest and the best with your girls and your so, so very dearest and darling late mom, your precious dad, your sisters, and in fact all of your so, so very precious family, sister!!!!!! Yay!!!!!!!

    Sister, please have a superbly super Saturday, a wondrously wonderful weekend and week coming up next week, and may all of your days be so, so very especially blessed!!!!!! Wow, I feel just so cheerful, inspired, uplifted, and so much joy from revisiting this absolutely beautiful and lovely blog post article, Wendy Jane!!!!!! Yay!!!!!!!

    Very Warmly and Sincerely For Always my so, so very dearly special Jewish and white sister who you are For Always so, so very much, Wendy Jane, with Peace and Love To You For Always, my sister, and with such Blessings and Even More Blessings To You For Always, my so, so very dearest friend,

    Your sisterfriend lesbian black woman in the spirit and solidarity For Always, Sherry Gordon

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