Sambo, or: The Last
of the Gibson Girls

You don’t want that one.

Yes I do, please . . .

Look at it!

Why can’t I—

Just look. What color is it?

Black.

And the mouth?

Red.

And?

Big.

What else?

He’s smiling—

Grinning. What else?

Pretty eyes . . .

Pop eyes, chile, those are pop eyes. Don’t you know who that is?

Just a doll, a funny doll, can’t I have it? . . .

Chile, don’t you recognize an insult when you see one? That’s supposed to be you.

On the bus she eased the new purse out of its wrappings and studied it carefully. It was black and shiny; she could almost see herself in its flat face. She unsnapped the clasp and peeked inside. A little mirror came with the purse; it dangled from a golden chain.

Skin brown. Hair black. Eyes small and far apart. Unsmiling. I don’t look like that—why she say I do? No one said any of those other dolls looked like anybody.

There was a pickaninny cryin’
Down in Tennessee one night,
His little heart was nearly breakin’
Just because he wasn’t white!

Her mother sang that song as a joke. She told her another story about a song, the white insurance man came to the door. Aunt May was changing the beds upstairs in a loud voice singing

Someone’s gotta pick the cotton,
Someone’s gotta pick the corn,
Someone’s gotta keep on singin’ a song—

and Mom let the white insurance man in and ran up to the bedroom to catch May at the top of the stairs.

That’s why darkies were born!

She liked that story. She would have liked to be Aunt May folding a fresh sheet bigger than herself, singing in a strong voice

That’s why darkies were born!

Shame on you, Grandma said, handing her over to her mother. Belle, ain’t this child got no sense at all?

1908. The puppet’s name is Sambo. He is wearing a red jacket, blue trousers, purple shoes with crimson soles and linings, green umbrella. Oh what a friendly boy he looks to be! Too bad he is so silly! The Negro children laughed.

Yes, Akron was young and struttin’ in those days. “Standing Room Only!” the headlines said. Men with their families came up from Georgia to work in the rubber and oatmeal factories. And in the summer when that oats mill got headstrong and those rubber factories loud-mouthed the heat, no one was nowhere but in the street. All day all night the street was the respectable place to be.

If you meet a paper tiger he won’t steal your clothes. A tiger in the forest might. That was another song:

Tiger, tiger burning bright
in the forests of the night.

A tiger is also part of a baseball team. A boy cousin from Detroit talked about going to “see the Tigers” and she wanted to go, too, but she was in the wrong state. Her father took her to see the Indians. It wasn’t the same, going to see the Indians. A man stood up in the stands and poured all his whiskey out. He must have been sad, because he hid the bottle under his coat and watched the stream of yellow until it gave out. She pointed the man out to her father. He took her away for some popcorn.

It was 1908, chile. I was wearing a striped sundress. In those days summers were hot like they supposed to be—that was before them astronauts got to fooling around with God’s atmosphere, afflicting the weather. It was so hot that summer the men got to fainting at the machines. There were travelling minstrel shows, come down from Cleveland with vaudeville for the grown-ups and puppet shows for the children. We stood bareheaded in the sun to see them shows. My dress was red an’ white, made out of an old coat lining. It had a yellow sash. After a while the show began and Little Black Sambo strutted out in his bright clothes and green parasol. Look, the minstrel said, look at little Sambo in his brand-new clothes! How he loves bright colors, little monkey that he is!

I’ll never wear bright colors again; I promise, Grandma.

Hush chile, don’t be silly. But I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t care how many dolls they make in this world and how bad you might want them—I ain’t going to buy you one until they can do them right.

Then there was Penelope, Penelope with the long red hair and plump good looks of Brenda Starr, Penelope of the creamy skin and dimpling cheeks. Aunt May bought her, Aunt said she was cute as a penny, she thought up the name. There were also small pink curlers and a comb. Wash and set and place her in the sun to dry. As many as five hairstyles a day—Penelope the Model, Penelope the God-fearing Nurse, Penelope the Prize-winning Journalist, Penelope the Girl Next Door. Penelope Had a Man and He Loved Her So. Never a hair out of place unless she shook it loose to let it stream in the wind. I took her out on my bicycle to make sure it streamed.

The end of summer, my eleventh birthday. Birthdays at our house had their ritual: I drank coffee for breakfast. I made up the dinner menu, chicken and applesauce and pork ’n’ beans. I bicycled to Morry’s grocery for a dime’s worth of candy buttons and ate them all. I took Penelope to the park. When I got back it was nearly dinnertime; the kitchen clanged and hissed. I lay Penelope on my bed. My mother appeared in the doorway, holding out a shiny yellow package.

Something you’ve always wanted, she said. From Grandma.

I ripped the waxy gift paper away. In a blue display box lay a doll in a seersucker playsuit. It had brown skin. It looked like an overturned crab. And the eyes didn’t close—and I felt tears coming—it had no hair. Those blistered, painted curliques on that bulbous scalp could not be called hair.

Just think, honey—now you have a doll who looks just like you!

I don’t want it.

What do you mean, you don’t want it? Honey, where are you going? Don’t you dare—!

I threw the doll down the stairs.

My father came running, newspaper fluttering at his ankles. What’s all the commotion about, he demanded. Dolls flying and all hell breaking loose—

Obviously, my mother declared, your daughter is ashamed of being a Negro. She prefers that fat redhead to a doll of her own color.

She snatched the doll away from my father and shook it in front of my face. What a voice she had, hard and shiny as scales.

Do you know what you’re saying? she whispered. You’re saying you don’t like being a Negro. For years we’ve fought so there would be Negro dolls for our children, and you’re saying you’d rather play with the white kids!

Stop it, Belle.

My father knelt down, took me softly by the shoulders. Why did you do that?, he asked, sad but gentle. His hair pomade smelled like ginger ale, and fresh-cut grass.

Tell me, he said, what is it you don’t like about the doll?

He took the doll from mother, held it quietly. I looked at it—the staring eyes, the bulging, painted head. I didn’t look like that. And if I did, how could they, my parents, stand there and tell me? How could they love me and tell me?

All right,—sighing, standing up—maybe you don’t know why exactly. Maybe you need a little time to think it over. I have a suggestion: keep the doll for a day. Play with the doll for one day and then, if you still don’t like it, we’ll take it back. No questions asked. O.K.? You tell us you don’t like it, we’ll take it back.

He put the doll on the bed.

Come on, Belle.

I was alone. What had she meant, wanting to play with white kids?

I had two best friends, Kathy and Angela; Kathy was white and Angela was black; Kathy lived up and around the corner and Angela in the other direction and I played with both of them nearly every day. She must have meant something else.

Penelope lay on the floor, where I had dropped her in my excitement. They thought they could leave me up here and I would be too scared to say anything. They thought by tomorrow I’d calm down and say Yes, I’ll keep it, I’ll even give it a name—and then they would take away Penelope and I wouldn’t even notice she was gone. . . .

The new doll lay on the bed in its cheap, striped clothes. Picking it up, I walked over to the window, unlatched the screen, and threw the doll out, hard.

How smoothly it fell!—a mindless spot in the sky, toppling lazily, a lame star smiling its nonsense smile. A shallow thwap when it landed—like a ball, skipping across the brick street and coming to rest against the far curb, its body a startled, upreaching claw.

I had done it. Across the street a shrill voice cried, Who threw that baby doll into the street? The front door slammed, my mother ran out and across the street; she scooped up the doll and stood there a moment looking up at the window in disbelief. I did not move away.

I have a recurrent dream: I have on white shorts and a yellow tee shirt and I am running through all the streets in the old neighborhood. Though the sun bears down fiercely and the cobbled bricks are precarious, I run without the least effort. My hair streams behind me, long and shining, red as the tulip shedding and the cardinal flashing. Isn’t she lovely, they whisper as I run past, a wild deer. And in the dream my skin is brown.

Penelope’s left arm was punctured by something, a hairpin or a needle, and she soaked up water whenever she got a shampoo; every morning my pillow was wet. Quaker Oats left town. White girls began to iron their hair, as if it were a new invention, some kind of revelation. I straightened my hair as always; I cut bangs, I used larger rollers, I rinsed it sable-brown. When afros came in style, I breathed a sigh of relief and threw the curlers away. It was time to go to college.

Rummaging through the cartons in the attic, I came upon a shoebox. So she wasn’t gone after all. The hair lay matted and dusty around the rose-pink face; like a human being with gangrene, the arm with the puncture had turned dark green. She was heavy, full of water. I took her down to show my younger sister. What did you ever see in such a fat thing anyway? my sister exclaimed, turning back to her television program. That’s when I noticed the stuffing had mildewed. She stank.

I took Penelope to the bathroom and laid her on the scales. She came to four pounds. The Girl with the Crowning Glory had gone to seed; there was nothing to do but throw her away.

And don’t miss:

Essential Reading, an anthology of works that inform, inspire, question, and call us into action, from Narrative authors.


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