In the solitude of my room, I sat cross-legged on my bed and observed the heavy gift in my hands. Its exterior was smooth and the streaks of paint were spread meticulously across the cool surface. From bottom to top the figure had been carefully crafted, I could tell. Complete with coal black boots and a big coat of fire engine red, the ornament stared back at me guiltily - almost as if it had been caught. Its eyes bore into mine and begged me to be delighted by its presence, perhaps even overjoyed that I’d received it. But I would do no such thing. This thing, this ornament in my hands, may have been holding a sagging green sack of hand-woven bears and chugging choo-choos, but I didn’t want any of it. For this Santa Claus - if it could even be called Santa Claus - was a mistake. Perhaps its artist was sick when he crafted it. Perhaps the fluke could only be accredited to a late night tugging mercilessly on his leathery eyelids. Whatever the case, this Santa Claus in my hands had skin drenched in a blotchy, dark brown, a brown too deep and mysterious to offer anything good. Instead of an innocent, white, and downy beard, I saw a coarse hedge of black hair plastered upon the ornament’s face, too dark to be inviting or warm. In my hands lay an imposter, if you will: a black Santa Claus.
As I observed the deceitful ornament, I thought of the days I’d spent at school before this winter break began. Though my skin was still that awful brown color, my school of perfectly white children accepted me as one of their own. They played with me and learned with me. On dark green rugs we would sit, our necks craned up to look at our cherry-cheeked teachers singing us warm melodies and pointing at vivid pictures until the information was ingrained into our impressionable minds. In no time, we could recite it back just as eloquently, to her delight, of course. I loved school. I was one of two black students in my class, but I’d never felt more at home. Nowhere else could I read fluently and think quickly while being praised, not mocked. Nowhere else could I love the smell of old books that transported me to another realm, and be accepted when I tried to share such wonder with others. I loved my classmates, especially their fair skin and gentle words. I adored the array of hues, the unique rainbows found in the irises of their eyes. I envied their loose heads of hair, so easily styled to set them apart. Though I was stuck with dark holes for eyes and a thick mop for hair, being with them made me feel like for a moment, I was one of them. I could be quiet, patient, and sharp, and this would place me right at home. If only the same could be said when I left.
After school, I’d hesitantly join a different breed of students in a walk to the daycare we shared. The place was a nice brick house. A green lawn sprawled out before it and beckoned us often to its backyard, complete with a wooden castle of ladders and slides along with all kinds of bikes and stilts for the older kids to use. As inviting as the place looked, walking inside was a nightmare. I’d instantly be met with the din of children yelling. Even their laughs didn’t inspire a smile from me. At a little wooden table I would sit and simply watch, pretzel after salty pretzel disappearing in my silent mouth. The black-skinned kids threw food and ran through the house’s halls while the old woman in charge glared at us with her beady eyes and struck any one of us shamelessly if we stepped out of line. For a while, she’d instruct us to do our work, but after she’d bore of it, she’d soon sit back in her woolen sweaters and lazily watch the blaring TV for herself. I dreaded those afternoons. I hated looking around and seeing kids behave so differently than me. Stripped away was my perfect little world of eager learners and charming little kids. This place, this awful place, felt more like a zoo.
As the evening inevitably came, I would watch eagerly as parent after parent would come through the doors and pick up their children. Backpack in hand I’d wait until I saw my mother’s gentle smile or my father’s shiny bald head. With nothing but a polite ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye,’ I’d rush down the stone steps of the brick house, my backpack bouncing against the small of my back. One large step and swing into the van, and I’d be gone, headed home to yet another one of my havens.
This was why I now glared at the ornament, with such hatred that it made my hands shake. I thought no more of it and tore away from my bed. Though I shouldn’t have made my anger so obvious, lest my parents become concerned, I couldn’t help myself. In a flurry of steps I rushed down the carpeted stairs and stormed into the kitchen. I crumpled the ornament back into its green wrapping and threw it into the trash, the white bag inside stretching painfully at its weight. My parents, alerted by the thunk it made, came inside and immediately scolded me for doing such a thing, for throwing away such a lovely gift for the tree. Worry furrowed their eyebrows and they shared a few puzzled glances in response to my distress, while shock kept them from seeing the true culprit.
I now see that the ornament itself wasn’t to blame for my frustration, nor was the person who gave it to me. Still, I was punished quite thoroughly for disrespecting the gift and, more importantly, the thought behind it. However, I felt no remorse. In my mind, that ornament had no place hanging on the buoyant limbs of our pine-smelling tree in the first place. It didn’t deserve to be illuminated by its lights or to be nestled by the other ornaments of snowflakes, bells, and reindeer.
This ornament did nothing but remind me of the contradiction felt within myself. It was a lie, and just as dishonest as me. Santa Claus, a jolly old man with a warm heart for children could not be seen with black skin. This could only mean that I, a black child with kinky hair and full lips, could never be seen with a good heart.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.