When I was a girl, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy were the rage – books, cartoons and dolls. The dolls had red yarn hair, button eyes and red, white and blue clothes. Most of my friends had at least a Raggedy Ann doll in their room. I never had a Raggedy Ann doll. Instead, I had a doll my Grandmother made for me. My doll was brown, not pink like Raggedy Ann. She had black yarn hair looped in nubs close to her head, she had a brown and white gingham dress and I had a matching dress.
I never saw another doll like mine and was always curious as to why this was my doll and I didn’t have a Raggedy Ann doll. I had Raggedy Ann books, no doll, and I never felt it appropriate to question a gift from my Grandmother.
While my parents were very consistent and regular with their message that all races are equal and sprinkled evenly with good and bad elements. When I would ask, “Why ‘Negroes’ live in such poor neighborhoods?”. Mom was quick to respond, “That’s how they like it, they prefer to be with other ‘Negroes’.” I was incredulous, this just didn’t make sense to me.
I began to notice more nonsensical responses one Summer when I began to attract some boys who would come by the house. My father indicated that there was a problem because most of the boys were Catholic. We were pretty regular attendees to the Lutheran Church. I was aware of the significance of Martin Luther and the Catholic Church but mystified how that had anything to do with my social life centuries later.
Then in college, I brought a boy home. He was beautiful, when he and I walked down the street, no one saw me. He was tall and slim with beautiful olive complexion, dark brown ringlet curls on his head, snappy, bright brown eyes and a quick infectious smile. My folks liked him in general, pleasant and very polite, just “a little dark”. Luis’ mother was an Iowa farm girl and his father was from Peru. He called himself a “Hickspanic”. He was from a large family, but the only mixed family in an Iowa town, so he had some stories to tell.
Many years later when I brought my future daughter’s father home to meet my folks, they got very sentimental for the days long ago when I introduced them to the boy who seemed “a little dark” because this man was more than “a little dark”. My Mother tried during those in between years (from when Luis and I broke up till she felt totally defeated meeting the man who would become my daughter’s father) to win me over to her way of thinking.
One of her arguments was that I wouldn’t be allowed in certain white neighborhoods, to which I replied, I didn’t want to live in those neighborhoods anyway. Most of her arguments I had a good answer for, except when she pointed out that Cardinals and Blue Jays do not reproduce together. I could only say that I had no conclusive evidence that this was true.
I was accused of just being rebellious. Adults who cared about me asked me if I was dating non-white men just to hurt my parents or maybe I was just going through a rebellious stage to establish myself as an independent adult. Most of my life I had been considered quite the goody-goody. I had no idea why I would be rebellious, just sounded like it would create chaos and hurt feelings which it did, but it was not because I wanted to be rebellious, rebellion was not on my agenda.
Finally, quite exasperated and at her wit’s end, my Mother made an impassioned plea. “Honey, if you can’t fall in love with a White man, could you please make it an Indian or a Mexican?” I was stunned. On the one hand, I had moved my Mother off of white. No idea that was possible.
On the other hand, my Mother thought it was possible for me to carry a piece of a brown paper bag with me and hold it up to measure the brownness of someone’s complexion to determine how close I would get to them emotionally.
I let this sink in a minute, and then gently laughed and explained to my Mother that knowing her as I did, I knew that whoever I loved, she would love also. She didn’t like hearing that, but didn’t argue with me.
After I married and my daughter was born, with much drama and cajoling, I got my parents to visit and meet their granddaughter. Once my sweet baby was slipped into the crux of her Grandfather’s arm, it was like those scenes in the movies where there’s a heavenly light and the choir sings. It was a done deal, the family could heal. From that day on my Father and my Father-in-law enjoyed talking on and on about the ills of the world, regularly agreeing that there was good and bad in both races.
Not long after my daughter’s birth, my Mother shared a story from my childhood. When I was about 2 or 3 years old, my Grandmother went into a trancelike gaze into my eyes. When she was done, she announced to my Mother that I was going to marry a Negro. My Mother vigorously resisted, but my Grandmother insisted it was true.
To remind my Mother of this, that Christmas my Grandmother gave me a brown gingham dress she had made with a brown Raggedy Ann style doll in a matching brown gingham dress that she had also made. With one story, one question was answered and many more surfaced.