I just heard about Shirley Temple Black's death. I am an African-American woman who associates the child star with my childhood. Apparently she passed away last night, Monday, February 10, on my birthday. At age 85, she was almost 30 years older than I am now, born one year later than my mother. But in my mind, she's still around 6 years old, the symbol of a sweet little girl who can make it through any crisis.
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Perhaps, even, she is the first media image I encountered that seemed to prescribe what a perfect female child should be according to Hollywood: cute and curly-headed, sunny and pleasing. How was I to know then that girl was myth?
During the 1960s, it seemed almost every week one of the television stations was running one of Shirley Temple's movies, usually on a Saturday afternoon. Sometimes I'd sit with my cousins around the black and white television in my grandmother's home in New Orleans's Gert Town. Sometimes I'd watch alone in my 7th Ward childhood home. Reruns or not, we'd watch her adventures as one character or another. And after the studios colorized the black and white films, we watched again.
This was pre-800 channels, pre-cable. It was either the Little Rascals with Buckwheat, Cowboys killing "Indians," the Three Stooges, or Shirley Temple. Thank goodness for books, but even in those we were hard-pressed to find positive images of people like us.
Most of her films were more than 20 years old when I first saw them, and although my favorite was The Little Princess (1939), when I hear Shirley Temple's name, I see her walking down that airplane aisle singing "On the Good Ship, Lollipop" in Bright Eyes (1934). That may be the image that pops up first because that's often the clip played when anyone discusses Shirley Temple in a documentary or child stars in general from that era.
I link Shirley Temple with happy times. She was innocent, I was innocent, often the center of attention in my family because my parents had struggled to have a child. I had a grandmother, a nurturing aunt, a father and mother all in the same town who I saw daily, and sometimes relatives from California or Tennessee would visit. They made me feel special, too. For the first eight years of my life, I was spoiled. After that is another story.
Back then it was common to coif little girls with "Shirley Temple curls" for holidays and other special occasions. She was so popular that a child's drink, a non-alcoholic cocktail, was named after her. Sometimes, when my parents took me with them to Dooky Chase Restaurant, I'd have one. But now, oh, what creepiness, the symbolism of a little black girl in the 1960s South imbibing Shirley Temple.
And yet, I was not fascinated with Shirley Temple the way the fictional character Pecola Breedlove is in Toni Morrison's classic novel The Bluest Eye. I had no Shirley Temple dolls, no cups with her blond curls shining and her blue eyes staring at me. In fact, I'm not even sure I registered that Shirley Temple had either blond hair or blue eyes because I first watched her in black and white. To me, Shirley Temple was just another white face on television in a time when black faces rarely appeared.
However, by the time I was six years old in 1966, I was aware that many white people did not want black people around them. After all, the ugliness of racism revealed itself on the nightly news. I doubt my parents removed me from the room when the footage rolled of dogs let loose on black teens and high pressure water hoses blasted black bodies during the marches. And these scenes played again over the years as the Civil Rights struggle remained in the news.
Also, I had a personal experience when I was about 4 or 5 years old that I still recall. My mother and I boarded a public bus in New Orleans. It was the mid-sixties, so the buses had been desegregated for at least six years by then. There must not have been many window seats because I did not sit by mother. I sat by the window in a seat next to a white woman. I guess, now, the woman must have been in her late fifties. Soon after I sat next to her, the woman huffed, got up and moved, clearly angry. My mother, watching, called me to her and said loudly, "That's okay, baby. Anybody who doesn't want to be by you is missing the opportunity to know a wonderful little girl." But I was not a dull child, so while I did not yet know the word "rejected," I recognized disgust and knew the woman thought something was wrong with me.
As a child then, for me, the measure of whether a white person was "nice" or "mean" was, Will they let you be near them? I had seen Shirley Temple dance with Bill Robinson in The Littlest Rebel and Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm, so she must be nice. At 5 years old, that was as close as I came to today's critical race theory.
It was not until later that I understood the movie's racialized images and the racism that produced them. Bill Robinson, Uncle Billy in the movie, was the slave of Shirley Temple's character Virgie. Yes, Virgie's family was on the wrong side, but I didn't know that when I was 4 or 5 or 6 because I was not old enough yet to have learned in class that my people were once owned by white people. That's not information black parents share before they have to. And Shirley, when she filmed the movie, didn't know that either, according to what she said in interviews during the 1990s. Still, I knew more about racism when I was 6 than she did when she was 6.
Back then, I also did not know how seeing Shirley Temple on television had begun to shape my understanding of what it meant to be an adorable girl. I don't recall trying to emulate her. According to an older cousin, I was more likely to imitate an adult, but I do recall hearing my mother say to my aunt before she straightened my hair with the hot comb, "And give her Shirley Temple curls."
I recall as well at age 5 that I walked down the aisle of New Orleans's old Municipal Auditorium to the lofty sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance," a train flowing behind me, my body covered with a white, pearl-encrusted gown, a fake piece of hair to hold my tiara in place, and my own hair bouncing at my ears in those desirable curls. I was the princess of my dance school because my parents had raised the most money for my age group. A teen was the school's queen. But I was not very sweet or adorable that night, my mother told me. I didn't want anyone to stand in the pictures with me.
Did I think I was like Shirley Temple? I don't remember thinking that. Did I ever want to be Shirley Temple, no. Like Claudia in The Bluest Eye, I was not impressed with my white baby doll. I recall holding a black doll, and later I think I begged my parents for a life-sized doll (3 feet tall) that only came in white. Of course, it had blue eyes. But once I had it, I didn't like it. It scared me, and I hid it in the closet. The next year, I gave it away.
Was my mother trying to make me Shirley Temple? No. She was the one who made sure I had a black doll and the one teaching me black history facts, telling me about George Washington Carver and the story about my grandmother meeting him. She was the one who taught me about Phyllis Wheatley and had me memorize James Weldon Johnson poems. She was also the one who made black history intimate. Not only were W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and Nat Turner important, so were my grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-grandmother, so were my great-uncles and aunts.
As for my father? He liked Westerns, war movies, and every sport on the planet. He had stories about cows, Gypsies, snakes, his grandfather's horse, and Mount Vesuvius erupting as the Germans bombed because he was there. He didn't watch Shirley Temple. He kept an ear out for The Platters and an eye out for Lola Falana.
Eventually, I no longer watched Shirley Temple movies. I moved on to swashbuckling tales, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Dracula movies, and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney teen flicks. I liked those more than the teen Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.
But I could never really get away from Shirley because America kept talking about her, so sometimes, I'd see one of those late night commercials from Time Life or something like that, selling The Shirley Temple Collection, and I'd wonder, What's she doing now? What's it like to no longer be a little darling? Did that make her a nobody? Hardly. She became a public servant, unscathed even by her ardent support for Richard Nixon. So, she'd show up in the news occasionally.
Her name filled the airwaves again when I was 14. President Gerald Ford appointed her the American Ambassador to Ghana. That may have been when I noticed that she'd married, and her last name was Shirley Temple Black. With that appointment came the great controversy. It was the mid-seventies. African-Americans were still riding the "Black is Beautiful" high, and the segregationists' flight to the Republican party remained fresh in black people's minds. So, some argued that because Shirley was a conservative, white Republican, she should not be an ambassador to an African nation. And due to the hostility African-Americans sensed from the Republican party, the belief spread that she was also "a racist."
I was in high school then, and not paying attention to why people were calling her that. All I heard was, "Hmph!" and "Shirley Temple racist." Typical teenager, my attitude was "Blasé blasé, par for the course." By that time, I had become more acquainted with disappointment and the personal wounds of racism.
With her death, these accusations have arisen again and where else other than on Twitter. Is the controversy worth anyone's energy? I have strong doubts. At this point, isn't it really about what Shirley Temple represented to those who were aware of her or influenced by her icon status in society?
I went for years without thinking about her unless her work appeared on television. Next, my daughter was watching The Little Princess and Bright Eyes. Honestly, I thought that Shirley Temple had passed away already sometime while I was in the middle of divorce.
When I had to do a presentation on The Bluest Eye two years ago, I didn't even bother to look up Shirley Temple despite her presence in the book because I felt I already knew what I needed to know about Temple's reach. I knew enough to understand Pecola Breedlove's obsession with the star, with her desire to drink milk from a Shirley Temple cup. After all, Pecola's story unfolds during the 1940s when the blonde-haired, blue-eyed angel was still everywhere, probably on billboards towering over towns, and her movies were in theaters on a big screen, not small in a little box.
And Pecola didn't have a mother teaching her black history or a decent father or the Civil Rights Movement and "Black is Beautiful" posters. She didn't have Diana Ross and the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show or the Julia sitcom on television or anyone to crown her "princess" for a night and counter the forces of her self-hatred and destruction. I count myself blessed as Claudia was blessed.
And yet, six years before I conducted my presentation, I wrote a poem, "Ducks and Swans on the Lagoon (at City Park in New Orleans)." In it, the spirit of Shirley Temple appears. I pulled that poem out today and studied it. Then I posted it to my blog. So much stuff is there: the heaviness of navigating race as a child, of steering around demeaning images of the self, the idealization of whiteness, and rising above America's tragic racial history. Somehow, I had processed it and made something for myself.
No, I don't hate Shirley Temple as Claudia did. Neither do I love her madly. She was part of the scenery of my childhood, and like it she, too, now is gone. But we remain, making sense of it all.
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