The Color of Santa

December 22, 1990|By Frank Harris III

West Haven, Connecticut.

THERE IS MAGIC in the minds of children come Christmas time. They sense the specialness of the season, the added warmth and spirit of goodwill symbolized by the jolly man in the red and white suit.

My 3-year old can hardly wait. She keeps asking when Christmas is coming and calling Santa's name wherever she sees him -- and everywhere she sees him, he is white.

She was too young to remember that the first and only Santa whose lap she sat upon was her maternal grandfather, dressed in a red and white suit with white beard, and black skin.

What color is Santa?

I remember when Santa would come into my boyhood neighborhood flanked by two black men pointing out which houses had children. Santa was white then, or at least so I thought. Years later I learned that Santa was, in reality -- and in a powerful testimonial to the effectiveness of a single drop of African blood -- a black man, albeit a very light-skinned one, who had been chosen by the adults in our neighborhood to provide us with lasting memories of Christmas.

Their choice capsulated the thoughts of the time -- that Santa Claus was white and, thus, must look white.

This changed somewhat with the black-pride movement of the 1960s when Santa Claus became a black man in stores and in black magazines and on windows and doors throughout our neighborhood, and singing ''White Christmas'' raised eyebrows because James Brown was singing about Santa going straight to the ghetto, and the Jackson Five was singing about Mommy kissing Santa Claus -- and we all knew that the Santa that James and Michael were singing about was black.

Today there is a new resurgence in identifying with all things African. But black Santas remain hard to find.

It may seem a small matter, but I want to ensure that my daughter living in a predominantly white society will have a healthy image of herself as an individual and as a member of the largest and most identifiable minority group in America. I do not want her becoming one of those statistics that show black children preferring white dolls to the dolls that look like her.

That is why I strive to present a multitude of positive images of African-Americans, whether she is watching television, listening to the radio, looking at a book or magazine, or just absorbing the daily life of her family. That is why the search is on for a black Santa. An African-American Santa. A Santa the color of her.

There will be those who say that the spirit of Christmas overrides all color. But if so, and if there were black Santas in stores and malls across America, would white parents allow their children to sit on Santa's lap?

It is understood that whites, as a numerical majority in America, would present Santa in their own image. But it should be remembered that Santa was a myth, a concept, a figure evolved from someone's imagination. It also should be remembered that Santa Claus is a powerful image in the minds of children. It is an image that should reflect more of the diversity of the American population.

Such representation is critical to the development of black children in a white society, for it shows that they have a rightful place as respected members. It also is critical to the development of white children in America's isolated racial enclaves, for it shows blacks in a wide range of roles beyond the narrow negative images passed from generation to generation.

The color of Santa matters because one day all children grow up to become adults in a real world where they become ''Santas,'' not only to their children, but to all children 365 days a year.

Mr. Harris is a free lance.

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