The Santa Clause
Memories of a Family's Annual Search for a Black Santa
It’s the pictures that are going to be a little tricky. Our daughter is the first grandchild on my side of the family and the first in more than a decade on my wife’s side, so all eyes are on the inevitable Christmas picture. And in the moment when I finally became my parents, I realized that getting the perfect holiday picture means I have to find a black Santa Claus.
When people talk about “Black Nationalism” or “Black Pride,” the terms evoke images of Black Panthers in black leather jackets or Angela Davis raising a defiant Black Power fist. But I’ve found that cultural pride is more about the day to day. Black Barbies, pictures of relatives, and that ubiquitous bright orange The Best of Earth, Wind, and Fire Vol. I album had more of an impact on post-integration African-American youth than Soul on Ice. No disrespect to Eldridge Cleaver, but I was 18 when I was exposed to him, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know the words to “September.”
I know for a fact that my parents never marched, sat-in, or protested, but they are some of the proudest and most quietly pro-black people I’ve ever met. Hell, I’ve been “acting like I come from something” since before I even knew what it was that I came from or what it meant. And they certainly weren’t going to let their children sit in some white Santa’s lap when it was time to take the Christmas picture. So for years there was an annual search for a venue with a black Santa Claus.
Remember, this was the ’70s. Everybody was all integrated and everything, but folks were still working through the details of what that meant. Growing up in western Baltimore County, I don’t recall anyone getting lynched, but there were many instances of racial insensitivity, like white kids complimenting black kids by saying they didn’t “act like they were black at all.” And there certainly was no black mall Santa Claus at either Security Square or Westview.
So every year, after my mother scoured every suburban mall in a three-county radius, we ventured into the city to find a black Santa Claus for me and my siblings to pay tribute to. And like many black folks who had moved out to the burbs, my parents viewed the city with suspicion and fear. My mother in particular used to scare us with stories of drug-infested streets and abandoned buildings and the undead eating the flesh of the living down in the sewers. OK, that last part might be me remembering some scenes from C.H.U.D., but I swear my mom had me thinking the city looked like the “Thriller” video until I was 16.
Still, each December my mother loaded us into her little Chevette, with my father along for protection, and we’d take that long, slow ride down Liberty Road. It was an exciting trip because my mother acted like we were going to war. It was as though this was a trip to see Santa from which we might never return.
The great irony of the whole “black Santa” situation was that I don’t remember ever paying any attention to the issue at all. I remember seeing the traditional white Santas at malls, and I remember going to see the black Santa, but I never believed that any of them were anything other than, I don’t know, Santa prophets, here to bear witness that the real Claus was on his way. It didn’t matter what color “Santa” was; I just wanted him to get the message about the Mego Batcave, Batmobile, and Batcycle back to the proper authorities. I didn’t cut out that page from the J.C. Penney catalog for nothing.
When my friends and I got into deep theological conversations about the nature of Santa Claus back then, we agreed that he was, in fact, a shape shifter who assumed the form that would be comforting to the children in whatever house he happened to be in. It made sense to me, especially since Santa sometimes sounded suspiciously like my father, as he grumbled that some “damn thing didn’t come with any damn instructions.”
In retrospect, I believe that like many Christmas customs, our pilgrimage to see black Santa was as much for the parents as it was for the kids. See, for years there were only a couple of black Santas in the whole city, and it seemed like every black parent in Baltimore wanted their children’s picture with them. So it would become a de facto reunion. My parents would catch up with old acquaintances that they had lost touch with when they moved. And as we moved up the line, Mom and her friends would laugh about where this one was or about what a disgrace that one ended up being, until one by one us kids took our turns telling black Santa what we wanted. It was a fascinating peek into my parents’ lives before we came along. Who knew my mother played cards?
But my favorite part of the whole trip was looking down at Santa and his court from Mondawmin Mall’s second floor. Watching from above, hopped up on cookies and eggnog, I was fascinated by this classic holiday tableau of parents and children and snow and reindeer and elves. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting but with black people.
Things are a little different now. My daughter is going to have her share of black dolls but, in a true multicultural fashion, she’s also going to have some Asian dolls, some Hispanic dolls, some white dolls, and some Indian dolls. I’m pretty sure she’s already heard Jill Scott’s Beautifully Human enough times that she’ll never know a time when she didn’t know the words to “My Petition,” but it looks like it’s going to be the same for Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter that my friend peeped me to.
With all kinds of folks wanting pictures with St. Nick, mall Santas come in a lot of different flavors now. Race stuff isn’t necessarily better, but it’s certainly more complicated than it was when I was a kid. I guess you could say that things aren’t so black and white. So, I honestly don’t know how big a deal a black Santa is in 2005.
Still, I will keep the tradition going, because what went unspoken on all those trips to Mondawmin was that when my parents were children they didn’t have a black Santa Claus to give their wish lists to. It was important to them for us to have that opportunity, and it is important to me to honor that. So I’m going to decorate my tree on Christmas Eve, drink some unspiked eggnog, and forgo Rudolph and Frosty for the joys of the The Year Without a Santa Claus. And I’m going to find me a black Santa, put my daughter on his lap, and take a picture. Because it will make my family happy, and that’s what Christmas is all about.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Keeping the Tempest Out of the Tea Pot (7/21/2010)
The Color of Cleo (6/23/2010)
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