Christmas For Sassafrass, Cypress And Indigo by Ntozake Shange, 1982
The magic trick:
Making a villain of the generous benefactor
This is really an episode culled from a novel, so I don’t feel great about including it on the blog. But here I’m already working on the second sentence. I may as forge ahead.
I really, really like this story (excerpt, whatever). So often – in real life, not just fiction – we are told of the beneficent rich woman coming down from on high to help the poor minority family. This really is no knock on the concept of charity. It’s just that sometimes the charity giver takes on an attitude of smug self-congratulation that can leave the charity receivers feeling lower than they would have had they simply never received the gifts. You don’t see that scenario played out too often in fiction – especially holiday stories – so it was a treat in this piece.
Shange spends the bulk of the story establishing the family’s happy Christmas. They are so thoughtful, kind and creative in their gifts and traditions. The mother, in particular, comes across as a nearly angelic figure. So when the girls benefactor comes in at the end of the story with grand announcements of gifts and charity, it feels more like an invasion than an act of kindness. The story suggests that sometimes generosity is nothing more than thinly veiled racist condescension. And that’s quite a trick on Shange’s part.
Nevertheless, Miz Fitzhugh hugged each one with her frail blue-veined arms, gave them their yearly checks for their savings accounts she’d established when each was born. There be no talk that her Negroes were destitute. What she didn’t know was that Hilda Effania let the girls use that money as they pleased. Hilda believed every family needed only one mother. She was the mother to her girls. That white lady was mighty generous, but she wasn’t her daughters’ mama or manna from Heaven. If somebody needed taking care of, Hilda Effania determined that was her responsibility; knowing in her heart that white folks were just peculiar.
“Why, Miz Fitzhugh, that’s right kindly of you,” Hilda honeyed.
“Why, Hilda, you know I feel like the girls were my very own,” Miz Fitzhugh confided.
Like any gift, you can’t dictate how the person should use your gift.
One of the great stories of Christmas.