The Black Santa
I remember sitting on his bony lap,
fake beard slumping off his face,
his breath reeking sweetly of alcohol,
a scent I didn’t yet know at five.
And I didn’t know that Santa
was supposed to be fat, white, merry—
not shaky and thin like this
department store Santa who listened
as I reeled off that year’s list:
a child’s oven I’d burn my fingers on,
a mini record player of gaudy plastic
I’d drag from room to room
by its precarious orange handle,
an Etch-a-Sketch I’d ruin by twisting
its dials too hard—my requests
as solemn as prayer, fervid, fueled
by too many hours of television,
too many commercials filled
with noisy children elated
by the latest game or toy.
I bet none of them
ever sat on the lap of a Santa
who didn’t ho-ho-ho in jolly mirth,
whose sunken red eyes peered
out from under his oversized wig
and red velveteen cap, his teeth yellow,
long fingers tinged with yellow.
I did not find it strange
to call this man Santa,
to whisper my childish whispers
into his ear, to pull on his sleeve
to let him know I really deserved
all that I’d asked for. I posed
for an instant photo with him,
a woolen cap over my crooked braids,
mittens sewn to my coat sleeves.
No one could have convinced me
this Santa couldn’t slide down
any chimney, though his belly
didn’t fill his suit, and his hands
trembled, just a bit, as he lifted
me from his lap. No one could
have told me that a pink-cheeked
pale-skinned Santa was the only Santa
to worship, to beg for toys and candy.
I wouldn’t have believed them,
wouldn’t have believed anyone
who’d tell me Santa couldn’t look
like me: brown eyes, face, skin.
From Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2003). Copyright © 2003 by Allison Joseph. Used with the permission of the author.