Sunday, September 16, 2007

How I Got My First Doll

My parents were hippies. They were the fascist kind though. I guess what you might call P.C. now. We couldn’t have toy soldiers or guns. Not that any of that mattered to me. I just wanted a doll. Any doll.

We couldn’t have those cool small plastic cowboys and Indians. We weren’t allowed to call them Indians and this was 1969? WTF. Maybe that was normal hippie stuff. I don’t know. We never watched westerns but they did let us watch some movie called Soldier Blue. It was probably one of the most violent movies I have ever seen. Sick stuff but it was supposed to wake us up to the reality of what the “white man” was capable of doing.

There were some arbitrary distinctions drawn over what constituted white. My mother was white and so was anything uptight, repressed, formal, unemotional, polite, institutional, conventional, and the list is too long to mention here but I think you get the idea. My dad is Puerto Rican and deeply and vocally resented all of the aspects of the United States that he secretly wished he was. I think he wanted to be a Kennedy, not a Mayflower descended WASP, but a privileged Irish-Catholic whose great grandparents built America with their hands and earned their position amongst the elite. That kind of white was okay. We were labeled “white” whenever we bought into any of the mass media bullshit the mainstream was feeding us.

We were white when we didn’t “speak our feelings.” I hated speaking my feelings. I was a kid. I made up feelings just to get out of having to think about what I actually felt. Mostly I said whatever I thought my dad wanted to hear. In college when I finally did start to speak my feelings which were at that point pretty dark, I realized the rest of the world black, white, green or purple, did not really want to hear me say, I FEEL LIKE I’M BLEEDING ON THE INSIDE AND I THINK I MIGHT BE LOSING MY MIND! I walked around frowning and resenting everyone who passed me on the street, shouting, “Smile! It can’t be that bad.” F%*k You! I am not here to make your world prettier by smiling!

When I was in sixth grade, my dad picked me up from school one day. My brothers and I usually walked home by ourselves but for some reason this day was different. New York City public schools were tough and I could never figure out how, aside from fighting which I found loathsome, I could earn the respect of my peers. The next day at recess Yvonne asked me, in front of all my classmates, “Why didn’t you tell me your father was black?” I knew I was not supposed to say the answer that popped into my mind but, crap, I didn’t even realize he looked black. I just shrugged my shoulders and said I didn’t know and watched my social status rise.

My dad called himself Puerto Rican or Hispanic if you were going to generalize and we always said the same. I parroted his “Spanish? I’m not Spanish. Spanish people are from Spain. I'm Puerto Rican.” It didn't sound credible coming from a tiny pale girl speaking annoyingly proper English. This was before Latina came into fashion and besides my Spanish was fairly limited. “People of Color” is loathsome to my dad. I can’t remember why. Something about everybody being a color or the condescending sound of it. Maybe it is because people might think he was black if they had to pick a “color.”

Don’t get me wrong, black was cool in our house. His students came over to our house and spray painted “Black Power” on our walls. I mean they had permission and all. There were some crazy parties that we slept through. We woke up to find people sleeping on the floor in the living room, glasses half-filled with beer and cigarette butts, extinguished tiny ends of joints in the ashtrays, and our long hallway covered with red and black slogans of the time graffited all over. “Power to the People” “Make Love Not War” “Burn the Bra” Stuff about freeing people unjustly locked up, Mao, “pigs,” and “women’s lib.”

That was another reason I couldn’t have a doll. Fashion dolls like Barbie represented the objectification of women we were fighting against and baby dolls let little girls pretend to be mommies when there were other goals we were supposed to have. Banned professions to aspire towards were nursing, teaching, stewardess, beauty queen. There was a Barbie knock-off doll tied around her neck to a lamp swinging naked as a symbol of… I still don’t know. I really wanted to cut her down and sew some cool bellbottoms for her or maybe a dashiki.

So one day as I was walking past Lampston’s right across the street from our apartment on Broadway and 102nd Street, I saw in the window a black doll. She was wearing the exact same dress and shoes and socks as the white doll in the box next to her and she had the same exact features. She had arms and legs that thanks to plastic sockets bent at the hips and shoulders. The only difference was she had black curly hair instead of blond curly hair and brown skin instead of white. I could still dress and undress her, give her baths, put her to sleep in a shoebox bed where her lids would shut when she was tilted backwards. I hoped her being black was the loophole to the “No Dolls” rule. I planted the seed by declaring one day, “I want a black baby!” It got my dad’s attention so as my eighth birthday approached I dropped hints about where my dad might purchase such an item.

Here I am at my birthday party proudly holding my doll, my smile betraying the joy at realizing that if I could just find exceptions to rules, I would not have to be bound by them.