A Princess of Her Own

“Which one of these do you like, Baby?” I held my breath and as my daughter scanned the three characters on this toy drum, or “grum” as she puts it. My daughter pointed at Tiana, the Disney character on the left and said, “That one.”

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Drum in a new member of Disney's Princess Club

Of course I was relieved that my daughter preferred the princess Tiana. My daughter is growing up in a world where Blacks are represented in every corner of society, including government, where Barack Obama is chief executive in the White House; the business sector, where Ursula Burns presides over the boardroom at HP; the Miss America pageants, where Vanessa Williams still reigns as the first Black woman to hold that title, please, despite our ambivalence about tagging pretty women and putting them on display. And who can understate the importance of Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, love them or not? Having a Disney princess that looks somewhat like her is a welcome treat, like a pretty little desert after a rich meal.

Readers, lest any of you suspect that I influenced Baby, maybe maneuvered the drum under her chubby finger, or bribed her with a sugary treat to pick the New Orleans native as her favorite, I did not. Tiana was her first pick, not a choice that I elicited from her after several tries. She made her choice genuinely and without hesitation. The question was not big deal to her. But while Baby moved on to more important matters, like finding her plush stegosaurus, I started analyzing it.

The Disney princesses have made their way into my daughter’s lineup of toys.  It won’t be long before the characters on the front also tunnel into her psyche one way or another. After she outgrows the characters and stories, she will either develop a soft, feminine fashion sense and hope for guys to treat her with a fair measure of kindness and deference, compartmentalize the Disney princesses as kindly childhood companions that ushered her to her tween years before fading away, or totally reject them as silly holdovers from a time when women were rendered passive and restrained by useless cultural norms.

And yet Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” gave me pause. I have never seen this movie, but I did buy Baby a story book based on the movie, and read that to her. It kept the leading lady, Tiana, embodied as a frog for most of the story. It had her reprise a traditional role for Black women—a nice, plucky, hardworking girl who puts the material and emotional needs of others ahead of her own. She even sacrificed her happiness in the name of loyalty to her best childhood friend, a rich white woman drawn as authentic and sweet. I have no problems with sweet, rich white folks, of course, but the whole idea of the self-sacrificing Black woman is beyond trite!!

OK, OK. Things work out in the end for our princess and her amphibian love interest. But it would have been nice to see the character in a human body and enjoying the experience like a real Black woman for most of it. At least. And what sort of “princess” heads into happily ever after by first donning an apron and the cares of running a restaurant, instead of retiring her cooking utensils and transitioning to a life of wealth and philanthropy? Even Hubby frowned when I explained to him that the prince turned out to be a layabout who was disinherited by his parents, and then lives off the woman he marries. Disney, come on!

Who really knows what influence this and other Disney toys and products will have on Baby? This “grum” is more form than function. The companion drumsticks are flimsy plastic rods that elicit a puny shallow sound from the drum when she uses them. For now the princesses all make very appealing and pretty playthings for my daughter, and it is nice to for her to see one of “her own” represented on team Disney. But if I do my job well, it will be my message, not the drumbeat of Disney’s corporate marketing and merchandising, that will reverberate through her life.

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All Are Welcome: Churches and Interracial Marriages

John Piper

Pastor John Piper, leader of the desiringGod ministry, says that he used to harbor some racist attitudes about interracial marriage and coexistence. During a sermon linked here, Piper says he used to think God created the races to live separately. Thankfully, he experienced an awakening, changed his mind, and eventually wrote and delivered a Biblically supported sermon extolling marriages like mine and promoting racial harmony.

I stumbled across this sermon recently, so that’s why it’s gone up years after its first delivery.

David IrelandDr. David Ireland, the founder and senior pastor of Christ Church in Montclair and Rockaway, New Jersey, had a different experience. He grew up in New York. (There is no more room for segregation, for pity’s sake!) His family integrated his neighborhood and came under some intense harassment from unwelcoming neighbors. One Sunday he explained why he cares so deeply that people of all races, nations and cultures worship together in the same congregation. Here it is: He was in a grocery store one evening and had stopped in one of the aisles to pick up an item and looked up at the people around him. He was spiritually moved and entranced by the mixture of cultures, races and nationalities represented by the other shoppes. Then, clear as a bell, he heard a voice ask: ‘David, why can’t it be like this in my house?’ He was moved to tears and has worked ever since then to support a congregation that welcomes everyone.

Why do I care what John Piper thinks about my marriage, or whether Pastor Ireland wants a culturally and racially diverse congregation? Well, I’m a Christian, for one. Why would I follow the teachings of certain collared nut jobs on this issue? Also, a lot of people have some very weird and misinformed ideas about where God, Christianity and the Holy Bible stand on interracial marriage. Even educated columnists at major newspapers have wrongly perpetuated the idea that an Old Testament command against interfaith/intercultural marrying is a ban on racial mixing. We know that religion is a subset of a culture and that the two are completely different from race, but somehow this columnist missed that. This is a surprising mistake from a writer at an elite newspaper. Many people of that ilk love great literature and can read the archaic English syntax in Shakespearean works without getting lost, presumably. The King James version of the Bible has remarkably similar language. (In fact, reading the Bible as a youngster helped me penetrate Shakespearean writing in high school literature classes.) I’m not sure why the columnist ended up veering off course so drastically. The irony is that the columnist is quite left leaning and is sympathetic to interracial marriages by all accounts.

Atheists might feel awkward about this discussion, because it involved religion, to be a distasteful and squeamish waste of time, but I think it’s worth having. The more vocal nut jobs who spread misinformation and lies about supposed biblical support for a racial hierarchy are the minority in Christian ministry. Either way, ministers hold sway over people. When one of them delivers a sermon like John Piper’s or that of my pastor, David Ireland, it goes a long way to getting people to think more humanely about the issue. I don’t remember sermons like theirs in the church where I grew up, and you want to know why?Everyone was either a first- or second-generation Jamaican, with a handful of exceptions. They were all Black, and the pillars of the church, plus a few core families, came from the same two or three parishes in Jamaica, where  they all knew each other. None of the young people, that I knew of anyway, brought white, Hispanic or Asian outsiders into the fold, married them at the altar where we were all baptized as youngsters or raised their kids in the church. Preaching sermons about interracial marriage would have been impractical. (Where we needed help was in curbing the gossipy cliquishness that could sometimes take a hurtful turn.)

I loved the richness in which I grew up, where women who were ordinary and working class showed up at church looking luminous and regal in their fine Sunday clothes and ornate broad-brimmed hats.  Although it could have been more racially and ethnically diverse, considering where we lived, one can understand how a church like that solidified around a black Jamaican core. We were relying on each other for survival in America, particularly in the competitive and cutthroat Northeast. With our insular ways and tribal politics, we might have been strikingly similar to the Liberians, Nigerians, Filipinos, Iraqis, Sikhs, Hindus  and other ethnic groups, but as we jostled with them for whatever slice of the American dream the white majority left laying around, we mistakenly thought we had clashing natures and opposing agendas.

Pastor David sometimes quotes Rev. Martin Luther King, jr., who, loosely transated, said that 11 o’clock is the most racist hour in Christian America, because that is when worshipers of all ethnicities go their separate ways to their different churches. When I sit in services at the church I’ve attended for more than eight years, I’m enveloped with a sense of peace. I have a pastor and presbytery who devote much of the ministry to ensuring that everyone from everywhere feels connected to God and with each other.

New Poll: The Looks of Strangers

“You have a beautiful family,” the young girl told me quietly as we watched Hubby wrangle Baby in his arms. We were visiting the Pleasant Valley Lavender farm in New Jersey, when our visit had crossed over into her naptime. Hubby and Baby had been running—him chasing her, mostly—through the farm’s lush and sprawling front yard as she succumbed to the frenzy that precedes delicious sleep in kids her age. I thanked my hostess/lavender farmer, hoping that my heretofore playful toddler wouldn’t collapse into insanity and shatter the image of that dimpled, charming cherub that we had arrived with.

Reader, you have probably guessed correctly that the young lady was Caucasian. We didn’t have the kind of friendly history or time to start talking about modern family life in New Jersey. She just gave me a compliment about my family, and I took it, gratefully. When I say gratefully, I am consciously laying aside that fiercely independent Jersey attitude that doesn’t care who approves or disapproves of my personal choices. It is nice to be able do that, honestly. I don’t like to dwell on the angst of being different. Of being a Black woman whose schoolmates scorned her for ‘acting white,’ whatever that means. Blogs that wring their hands over the complexities of identity and belonging—and pick through the minutiae over matters like having servants—make my eyes glaze over with the same disenchantment that some bring to learning about mutual funds. I understand and respect why a blog that thoroughly explores such feelings might appeal to a certain market, but I do not always have the time or patience for such musings.

Just an hour before that young lady spoke to me, the women who ran the operation made Baby and I feel completely comfortable as Hubby went scouting for lunch further into town. They let us into their house to use their bathroom. They freely offered to let Baby play on the swing set in the back yard, and Baby got acquainted with the koi fish (I believe) that glubbed and glided through the  pond out back. When Hubby got back, we felt completely free to sit at the table on the far end of their yard and eat our food—all before we even bought anything. There must be many other great people, white people, in the world who hold nothing but benevolent curiosity about mixed families. It could stem from anything: a great-grandfather who worked as a missionary or in an oil field in Africa; an interest in family genealogy; an interfaith marriage that carries the same emotional stakes as an interracial one. It was a truly relaxing afternoon and was a credit to the open, friendly ways that you can still find amidst the sharp-elbowed striving so acquainted with living in the Northeast.

New Jersey, and the Northern part of the state, particularly, is a colorful jumble of cultures, languages, cuisines, fashions and creeds from many parts of the world. Differences ought to be celebrated, especially when they don’t cross over into dysfunctional. These days, when onlookers rest their eyes on Hubby, Baby and me for longer than a few seconds, I don’t reflexively feel uneasy about it. One day we will come across some oddball jerk who wants to make us feel strange and “unusual.” And when that day comes, believe me, I will spread on that special Jersey sauce. Thick.

Right now we’re moving through life like a kayak on a glass-smooth lake. No one bothers us, and if anyone glares at us as we make our way, I rarely notice.

Happy International Kissing Day

 

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This morning, Hubby drove me to the light rail station near our house. I gathered up my handbag and tote bag, then pecked him on the mouth before pulling the car door open. Then I made my way to the back of the car, where Baby sat strapped in her car seat, kicking her chubby legs excitedly as I opened the door. I kissed her on teh forehead and she craned her neck forward to pack me on the cheek. Then I headed off to my train, waving and blowing kisses.

This is a normal morning ritual for us, made sweeter because today, July 6, is International Kissing Day. ALso known as World Kiss Day, it originated in the U.K. Now smoochers from all over the world have caught on.  This is a well-timed St. Valentine’s Day refresher and warm up for mistletoe action in December. How lovely, for families all over the world to give a nod to sweethearts, close families and friends who express their mutual affection for each other. Kisses affirm romantic feelings, have magical powers to heal babies’ scrapes and cuts, little kids send their mothers off with them to slay dragons all day at work, and adolescents get them with the blessings of their elders as they head off to leave their mark on the world.

Whatever your reasons for puckering up, cafe visitors, enjoy International Kissing Day. Grab your honey, your toddler, your squirmy teenage daughter’s forehead—whoever it is—some fruit flavored lip gloss and get to it. Happy canoodling!

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