My Turn: From Uncle Remus to civil rights organizing

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By KATHE GEIST

Published: 03-04-2024 4:52 PM

Thank you, Estelle Cade! [“When ‘Little Black Sambo’ was just a clever kid,” Recorder, Feb. 26]. I had the same “colored” baby doll. I called her Sandra, and now I know where the name came from.

Family lore has it that I brought such a doll home from my pediatrician’s office and bonded with it so immediately and completely that my mother had to go out and buy me another while returning the original to the waiting room, embarrassed to admit that her 2-year-old was a klepto. I loved that doll even after I stopped playing with baby dolls (and, yes, Greta Gerwig, long before Barbie, little girls had many different kinds of dolls to play with).

Privately, I thought my doll’s coffee color much more agreeable than my friends’ pinkish-white baby dolls, although we never actually discussed the color of our dolls; it never occurred to us to think about it.

Like Ms. Cade, we too grew up with the Uncle Remus stories. Although too old to have ever taken an African American literature class, I fear these stories may have been thrown out with the bathwater, which is regrettable. They are derived from African animal tales, which millennia earlier served as the inspiration for Aesop’s fables. Despite having been collected by a white man and colonized by Walt Disney, they are a venerable part of our country’s African American heritage.

Unlike Nikki Haley, I knew, as a 5- or 6-year-old, that we had fought a Civil War to free the slaves and that the Black people (“Negroes”) that I encountered from time to time were their descendants. No one still read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” back then, but it was invoked often enough to make me aware that slavery was not exactly a Zip-a-dee-doo-dah experience.

My father read me “Huckleberry Finn,” and, even as an 8-year-old, I totally understood Jim’s persistent longing and the precariousness of his journey to be free. (“Huckleberry Finn” is another tale that has been shunted aside because of its continuous use of the N-word. Maybe it’s time we revived that story, too. Folks like Ron DeSantis might be better informed about slavery if they had read it in their youth.)

My parents’ best friends at the time really were Black, a highly educated African American couple. Emotive and loving, they were my favorite adults in all the world. Acquainted with them from babyhood, I would, by third grade, become aware of the prejudice and discrimination they faced in our Northern, all-white, covenanted town.

By the time I was in high school, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and in college I did my bit, spending six weeks one summer in Mississippi. But with such rarefied experiences of Blackness in America, it would be a long time before I understood that the success of Martin Luther King’s movement was, in Churchill’s words, only the end of the beginning.

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And I could never have guessed that a conscience-less demagogue and a ruthless dictator would combine forces to make bigotry great again.

Kathe Geist grew up in the shadow of Michigan State University and now lives and writes in Charlemont.