I was infatuated by him. I saw him so infrequently that I couldn’t help but notice the feelings that coursed through my mind and body when I saw him. This change always caught me off guard as I would watch him come swinging down the sidewalk, with his signature smile for everyone. It was if he lived in a cloud and smelled roses all day long. And that is truly how he walked with his head held high, waving to people and babies that waved back.
It is what attracted me to him. He always seemed so happy and full of life, and when he wafted through our door he came in with a cloud of unusual smells that were delicate and intoxicating all at once. If I knew he was coming, I would be dressed and ready long before he got there. My clothes were always clean and freshly ironed, but I would agonize over which of my three dresses I should wear for him. He liked everything pretty, and he had told me over and over again, that I was the only girl in his world, and he always wanted me to look and smell “exquisite.”
That is if I knew he was coming. Most of the time though, I wouldn’t know nor would anyone else in my family, because my uncle Will seemed not to live by any rules that governed anything we knew. He often appeared “out of the blue,” and that is when he would most likely catch me in my overalls playing outside with my older brothers. In good weather, we were sure to be found digging in the dirt or “fixing” one of the rusty old bicycles that were always broken. As if out of thin air, he would materialise at the backdoor; the studied frown on his face quickly turning into his bright smile as he caught our attention.
My uncle, Will, was “unpredictable and peculiar.” I had heard my father say that so many times that even just hearing the two words together meant that he was talking about Uncle Will. We called him Uncle Will, but his real name was Wilbur. Over the years he had changed it so many times back and forth, from Wilbur, to Willie to Will, and even as my Dad had said once, to the “godforsaken name of Burr.” Uncle Burr hadn’t lasted long, and so we had settled onto Uncle Will, regardless of his latest whim in re-christening himself.
It was clear even to me as a child that he danced to his own drum, and I understood then when my Dad would shake his head and say, “unpredictable,” as if that was the explanation for anything Uncle Will did. It wasn’t unusual for Uncle Will to jump right up in the middle of a conversation and just wave goodbye, as a guest might, who after several goodbyes had stayed longer than expected, until it become finally clear they should leave. We never knew what to expect from our uncle, but perhaps that is what drew us to him.
Uncle Will was my mother’s only sibling, and she never had a bad thing to say about him. What bad thing could anyone say about him? Yes we had all heard him being referred to as “peculiar Wilbur,” and it seemed funny how the two words rhymed. Me and my brothers always hoped he would stay longer so he could tell us tales about all the places he visited and all the people he met. Sometimes he would indulge us with stories that my mother would cry out were far fetched, and she often warned him not to fill our innocent heads with nonsense. He would protest that they were true, and she would always grab a kitchen towel which she would use to swat at him. If he caught it, he would then grab her around her waist and kiss her on her neck saying ‘I love you.’ He never tired of telling her how much he loved her.
My father was never jealous of this interaction, after all Uncle Will and Mom were brother and sister, but unlike the rest of us, he wasn’t very drawn to Wilbur; the only name that he would call him by. It was an odd thing to understand, especially for a little girl. My Dad was a kind, good man who had all kinds of friends, but there was something that seemed to throw him off with Uncle Will. It was obvious that he tried to avoid my uncle, often taking the boys out, if he knew Uncle Will was coming.
Of course, as I have said before, Uncle Will came by unannounced more often than not, and it was during those times my Dad would find himself stuck entertaining him; a task that seemed too much for him. Usually, if he could get away, my Dad would take my brothers outside to “fix something,” though the boys were then too young to fix anything. They would shuffle away reluctantly as they too loved to be around Uncle Will.
In those days, children did as they were told with little outward opposition and anyway, Daddy’s fixing and tinkering wouldn’t last long before he and the boys ended up playing stick ball. Even as much as my mother enjoyed Uncle Will, I noticed that she too would urge the boys outside. Though I had no idea what it meant, I’d notice the strange way my Dad and Mom would stare long seconds into each other’s eyes, while she herded the boys outside. It was as if my parents were telling a secret out loud, but I couldn’t hear the words.
I was the fortunate one. As the only girl, and as the baby, I would be left with my mother and Uncle Will. He would tell her stories that made her laugh, and I would laugh along, not really understanding the jokes, but he never left me out even though sometimes he would cover my ears.
He would always bring us gifts, sometimes just candy and small dime store toys, other times he would bring little trinkets of things he had made. Uncle Will made silver jewelry and had once made me a leaping ballerina all with big thick plaits flying out from behind her. I was only allowed to wear it on special occasions, as my mother had said it was precious and so she kept it locked in her jewelry box. My brothers were not allowed to wear their jewelry, though no specific reason was ever given.
After entertaining my mother, my uncle would always make sure to come upstairs to my tiny pink bedroom. He wasn’t a very large man, but in my tiny room he took up most of the space, and yet, he had a manner that made me feel he was my size and indeed one of my own playmates. We would play tea parties and dress up. Most often he showed me how to play warrior dolls; a game that taught me how to fight, not as he would admonish-physically, but with my heart and my brain. He taught me that I needed to think for myself and that I should not just follow what other people told me was right. He always talked about “fighting for your rights, and living your own life.”
Warrior dolls were not only fighters, but they were astronauts and doctors, they were even the President of The United States, which I knew was just for old white men, and not for little black girls, but I never said anything because these games made him happy. Everything else was believable except that one. Warrior dolls never got married but they did things. They traveled to distant places, like he had, and lived their own dreams. Warrior dolls was a much different game to the dolls I played with my mom, since all the girls always got married and had a family.
One year for my birthday, I got a white Barbie doll from a great aunt of mine. I remember my mother had said, “what the hell is this,” and had stashed it away behind the other dolls. She had not said I couldn’t play with it, but I could tell she hadn’t wanted me to, and so I barely ever took it down to play with. I had loved that doll, perhaps more than the others. First she was brand new, but more than that she was so pretty with long yellow hair and blue eyes. I would sit and gaze at how her eyes opened and closed. She had long eyelashes and when I tilted her to go to sleep her eyes closed. Her hair was very long, and I could braid it just like my own mother braided my hair. My other black dolls all had coarse cropped hair that could not be braided and could not even be combed. Her skin was so white, that if I had dirty peanut butter fingers I could see the swirls of my fingerprints on her legs.
By the time I saw Uncle Will again, I had not played with the doll for a while. As usual my mother had stashed her away in the back on the top shelf, but Uncle Will, who was always very keen at noticing new decorations in the house, pounced on her immediately. Seeing my array of dolls ready for playing warrior, he had asked me why I didn’t want to play with Whitey. I told him that I wasn’t really allowed to play with her because she was different.
Uncle Will had turned away at that very moment and looked out the window for a minute. In my young mind, it appeared that the word “different” had caused him some kind of pain that he would rather not burden anyone else with, choosing to suffer it alone. But I didn’t know how to express these things, and so I waited until he turned back to me. Composing himself, he asked me to describe to him how she was different. I tried to explain that she didn’t look like the others, and in my mind, she didn’t act like the others.
Uncle Will then pulled out another doll that was really quite similar looking, and holding them both out to me, asked me to explain the differences again. Looking back from one to the other, I had told him then that they were different in their colour and their hair. He then asked me what they were like on the inside. Sensing that it was an important question, I opted to tell him the truth. I told him that they were both empty because I had once pulled off their legs and nothing had fallen out of the little holes there. He hadn’t laughed then, nor would I have known that was a funny thing to say, but he had urged me to think of them as people. I told him that they were probably just the same inside, and that they probably both cried when they were sick and when they were hungry.
I remember then he had made them hug each other; wrapping their stiff arms over each other’s shoulders and their stiff legs entwined at the ankles. He then put them to sleep in the middle of all of my dolls. After fussing over them, he turned to me and told me that it doesn’t matter what you’re like on the outside. What really matters he said patiently, is what you have on the inside. He said that many people may point fingers at you and laugh because you’re different on the outside, and yet if they only took a minute to discover they’d find that you are full of the same things they have on the inside.
It would be many years later when I became an adult that I would fully understand the lessons I learned from Uncle Will during our doll sessions. During my adolescence, I had become quietly rebellious, and had joined several resistance and black power movement groups. Sure there was a great need for change in the society, and I had believed strongly in the teachings of Malcom X, but what I saw around me was more intolerance than the unity I had hoped for, and it left me frustrated with a feeling of impotence. Still I continued in the groups and slowly became indoctrinated.
By the time I was 19 and already working, Uncle Will, who had moved to Paris three years earlier, died. I wasn’t going to see him again, and since his body was going to be thrown in the wind, as he wished, I would no longer have him, nor his grave to visit for advice. Throughout the years he had written to me, and hearing that I had joined the BLAKKK group, he had urged me to think it over. I was tired of the oppression in our town, in our state, and in the rest of the country. But Uncle Will continued to teach me if from afar. In his last letter to me, he asked me if I thought that white Barbie doll hadn’t been oppressed. He also said I should think about what had kept her down from expressing herself and living the life that she truly wanted.
It had been many years since I had even seen those baby dolls, though I knew they were still kept in my room on the very top shelf. A flood of memories came back to me as I climbed up there and took them down. In all my childhood years, I had only ever received that one white doll, and she was still there pushed back into her corner. The other black doll that my uncle had put to hug and sleep with Barbie, had been lost long ago, in fact, it was surprising I had any dolls at all.
Most of the other remaining dolls had lost limbs; had been tattooed on with swirly ink patterns; and the more unfortunate ones had been scalped, and their eyes had been gouged out. The white Barbie had luckily escaped the massacre of late childhood, not because she was special, but because she had been hidden in the corner. She was still quite pretty and fully intact.
In all those years I hadn’t seen her and yet she hadn’t changed. Her skin was still white and unmarred; though no longer wearing my peanut butter fingerprints, but now my own grown up sweat prints. I thought back to the day when we had played with her for the first time. Uncle Will had talked about tolerance and physical characteristics of people. He had said these differences didn’t matter. What mattered he had told me, was what was inside a person.
I shook the Barbie then remembering how empty she was, but in my mind I realised the significance of that act. She, like others who I didn’t know were full of love, life, sorrows, pains, the same thing I was full of. She was oppressed because no one saw her for who she was; no one noticed her; no one dared look inside her.
It seemed to me an argument and a push for being in the BLAKKK group. We were the oppressed; we were not looked at as similar or even equal. Yet lying back on the rug, holding the Barbie at arms length in front of me, with her blue eyes opening wide as if in fright, I remembered my Uncle Will. Uncle Will, always unpredictable and peculiar. Uncle Will so full of life, yet so different.
My mind slipped back to the man who I had been infatuated with; an innocent infatuation caused by my attraction to his differences. My attraction to him, had long developed into pure love and respect as I understood the importance of being a warrior and dancing to your own tune. In playing warrior dolls, my uncle never taught me to fight against differences, but rather to acknowledge them and look for the common binding factors.
I see him now, happily swinging along down the street. In my mind’s eye, I am standing at the window in my freshly ironed dress waiting for him to swoosh into our house. I see him waving to people and their babies along the way, but now no matter how wide his smile, or how friendly his hello, the people on the street didn’t wave back to “peculiar Wilbur,” and yet, Uncle Will never did stop smiling and waving. Uncle Will never stopped being who he was on the inside.
Copyright © 2014 Susan M. Wolfe~ All Rights Reserved
Dancing To Your Own Drum