Baltimore-based fiction writer and Goucher prof Kathy Flann reflects on her first significant relationship with a baby doll.
When I was four, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas.
“A black doll,” I told her.
She flashed a bemused smile. “Well, okay,” she said with a shrug. We didn’t know any black people. Maybe I had seen “Fat Albert” by this point, but I can’t be sure.
In my mind’s eye, this doll had long luxurious hair that I could comb. It had cheekbones and breasts. “Charlie’s Angels” had not hit the airwaves yet, and so I did not yet know that sexiness was so powerful that it could solve crimes. But the doll I imagined was not unlike a Charlie’s Angel or a Miss Breck girl — if any of them had been black.
I was a white kid from a whiter than white Midwestern family – a cocktail of Scandinavian, northern German, Irish, English, and French Canadian. There wasn’t a drop of Eastern European or Italian to add interest to the gene pool. We couldn’t claim, like everyone else did in the ’70s, to be one sixteenth Cherokee.
And I was the whitest of the “Flann clan.”
Old people always stopped us in malls: “Where did she get that red hair?” My mother would point to my Viking father’s red beard. My hair, though, was flame orange – not the subtle autumn tone of my father’s beard.
The beach was a problem.
I once got second degree burns from spending an afternoon at the pool.
My earliest memories revolve around my hair. As I headed into the wrong public restroom at a park in Southern California, where we lived, a man said, “Hey Red, where do you think you’re going?” Even at age three, I knew he was talking to me.
“My hair,” I insisted, clenching my fists, “is strawberry blond.” This claim was patently false, though I continued to make it for years. Anyone with eyes knew that it didn’t take two words to describe that color.
My hair was a public feature, it’s true. But when people called me “Red” (and they called me that a lot), it was as if they’d reached into my chest and squeezed something soft and fragile. There was something odd about me, something small and laughable, and people knew this just by looking. They could name it. Adults, with their wry grins, were nicer about it than kids, who came up with all kinds of narratives, such as that my freckles could be explained by poop I’d eaten or that my hair was the result of too much iron. Always, it was a mutation, a perversion of the natural order.
Is this why I wanted the black doll? In 1974, did I identify in some small way with how it was to be treated as “other”? As much as I might like to think so, I’m suspicious of theories that validate too neatly the ways we would like to see ourselves.
If dolls are tools that aid the imagination into other worlds, was I looking for a way to get out of my own skin? Or was I exoticizing blackness the same way others exoticized my hair? Perhaps, even at four, I had observed that the people doing the exoticizing were enjoying themselves far more than the people being subjected to it.
The doll my mother actually bought me did not resemble the one in my imagination – which was more like a Barbie. The doll I received that Christmas was a baby doll. She had a plastic head and hands and a cloth body. She had a four-inch afro, and she wore a blue dress with white flowers. When you pulled the string, she would speak in 1970’s jive talk, her cadence like the Blaxploitation films of the day.
“My name is Tamu,” she’d say.
“I can dig it!” she’d say.
“Are you hip to the facts?” she’d say.
“Cool it, baby,” she’d say.
“I’m proud, like you,” she’d say.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not make sense of her name. Was she trying to say “Tammy”? Eventually, I gave up and called her Susie.
I had never liked baby dolls, preferring Barbies, maybe because I wanted to imagine being an independent adult and being too pretty to invite public ridicule. But Susie was the exception. For many years, I clutched her while I slept. She bore witness to my imaginary stints as pet shop owner and country music star. I pulled that string until I broke the hard, square voice box embedded in her stuffing.
My father says that when I was four, I once disappeared for a long while to stare in the bathroom mirror. When I emerged, I said, “Dad?”
“Yes?” he said.
“I’m not white.”
“And black people aren’t black.”
My father probably launched into one of his famous philosophical musings, maybe something about how culture shapes perception and thus reality – language I was too young to understand.
But I got it already, didn’t I? The way that we pull each other’s strings?
Kathy Flann’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, New Stories from the South, and other publications. Her short story collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. Currently, she is an assistant professor at Goucher College.
This essay originally appeared in Sententia 4: What She Says, guest-edited by Jen Michalski. As part of the journal release party, Atomic Books is hosting NO, SHE DIDN’T! with local contributors Betsy Boyd, Kathy Flann, Jen Grow, and Elise Levine, who will discuss the origins of and inspirations for their stories. This event is part of the Atomic Fiction Series at Atomic Books and will be co-hosted by Jen and Benn Ray (and Sententia publisher Paula Bomer) in a new talk show format. Thursday, April 12th, 7-9 pm, Atomic Books
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