On Sunday night I indulged two of my favorite obsessions, the Christmas holidays and sentimental Americana, by watching Oprah Winfrey’s special "Christmas at the White House."
This televised tour of the decorated White House immediately evoked my holiday musings from last year. In the month after Obama’s election I felt like a kid at Christmas, with visions of a black president dancing in my head.
I have always been an over-the-top lover of all things Christmas: cookies, stockings, carols, lights, twinkly trees, sappy TV movies, egg nog, and wrapping paper. I was raised in a secular, humanist household. I came to Christianity as an adolescent. This means Jesus is a second string character in my holiday memories. It is Santa Claus who occupied the central iconic position of Christmas during my childhood.
And for me Santa Claus always was, is now, and always will be a black man.
Part of my investment in Santa’s blackness derives from my personal biography. My father is a brown-skinned man who smokes a pipe and has had a full beard of gray hair since my infancy. Black Santa looks like my dad, so I am drawn to him. But my father is nothing like a jolly elf. Professor Harris is a stern disciplinarian and a politically engaged intellectual. I can’t imagine anyone less likely to hang out with toy-building magical creatures while wearing a fur-trimmed red suit.
My attachment to black Santa is rooted in a fierce racial consciousness I have nurtured since childhood. In my adulthood I have revised much of my unthinking, black nationalist assumptions. My feminist commitments, interracial political work, and emerging cosmopolitan sensibilities make me somewhat less likely to exercise an automatic preferential option for blackness. This journey of political consciousness is also reflected in my holiday choices.
In college I added Kwanzaa celebrations to my holiday calendar. It was a way of countering Christmas commercialism and asserting my connections to black culture. Later I learned the brutal, misogynist history of Kwanzaa’s founder, Malauna Karenga, and I became less enthusiastic about the holiday. I have experienced similar shifts in racial consciousness as a researcher, writer, political advocate, and Christmas enthusiast.
But through it all my insistence on and attachment to black Santa has never wavered.
As a kid, black Santa represented a benevolent spirit of goodness and kindness directed toward African American children. Black Santa cared about little girls who look like me. I did not need blue eyes or blond ringlet curls for black Santa to find me adorable. Black Santa did not put a blond baby doll under my tree. He knew that I needed to rock, hold and nurture a baby doll with brown skin and kinky hair. Black Santa expected Nat King Cole to be playing on the stereo when he arrived on Christmas Eve.
The election of Barack Obama has changed my thinking about black Santa a bit. I am now convinced that black Santa is equally important for white Americans. Barack Obama is now the President of the United States. He is a deeply imperfect president. Racism still exists during his presidency and will persist when it is over. Obama cannot cure racial inequality. But he, Michelle, and the girls have altered the face of the first family.
Symbols matter. They help shape our understanding of national culture and identity. A president is not a country, but he embodies the national identity. Santa is the secular, commercial symbol of a religious holiday, but he nonetheless embodies the popular imagination of the holiday.
It is time for Americans to get comfortable with black Santa.
I’d love to see far more African American Santas in multiracial public spaces. Just as white Americans are learning to experience a world with a black man making foreign and domestic policy, so it is time for white children to wait with unrivaled anticipation for a black man to bring benevolent gifts. It is time for white mothers and fathers to snap smiling photographs of their sons and daughters on black Santa’s knee. Just as a black man took the oath of office in January, so it is time for a black man to hail "Merry Christmas" from the final float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
(And for all of you who will want to argue that President Obama is "multi-racial" rather than black, I disagree, but I’d be happy to take a mixed race Santa too.)
Black Santa will not cure the fundamental inequalities that shape the lives of black children and poor children of all races. He does not bring justice in his sleigh. Sill, racism’s assault on black life is not just substantive and economic; it is also symbolic and psychological. Navigating the symbols of whiteness during Christmas always make the holidays a little harder for many of us.
As I watched Oprah Winfrey chat with the Obamas in the beautifully decorated White House, I felt like this holiday season was a little brighter in a darker hue.