Allison Joseph’s Poem, ‘Black Santa’

Keep reading to see what’s going on here.

You know, it occurred to me this morning, a few days away from Christmas, that it’s been years since I did any kind of digging on why Santa Claus. As in, how did we come to have this tradition of Santa Claus on Christmas? And telling children that such a mythical being, who delivers the world’s presents with the help of elves at the North Pole, actually exists and is checking whether you’re naughty or nice? And the aesthetic? Of a red jacket, big black belt, big belly, long white beard, and riding a sleigh with reindeer? The myth-making we do as a species fascinates me. So, I went to History.com.

As with most myth-making, it’s based on an actual person, Saint Nicholas, a monk who was around modern-day Turkey in the 3rd century. Yes, the 3rd century.

“It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.”

History.com.

With many of the best of American cultural touchstones, it seems the Santa Claus myth-making to what we would recognize today began because of an immigrant Dutch family toward the end of the 1770s. And how neat is this? Sint Nikolaas is Dutch for Saint Nicholas, which became Sinter Klaas, which became Santa Claus.

This all a long way of introducing today’s poem, but the two points worth emphasizing here: 1.) Saint Nicholas, the actual person who is said to have existed in the Mediterranean region, wouldn’t be “white.” He’s not white European or white American; he would be more like olive to tan to brown skin color; and 2.) That’s all rather beside the point, anyway, because Santa Claus, the actual myth, is fictional, and Santa Claus can be anything we say it is.

Believe it or not, because American culture can both add wonderfully to the myth of Santa Claus, and also have the most asinine discussions about it, there was a “controversy” in 2013 when then-Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, said Jesus and Santa Claus are both white men. (Jesus also wouldn’t be “white” since he came from the Middle East.) For one, does anyone else find it peculiar to hold so steadfastly and stubbornly and nastily to whether Jesus and Santa Claus were white? I can’t even wrap my head around why you would be so irked if neither were. Jesus’ message has nothing to do with skin color, and the jolly around Santa Claus has nothing to do with his, either.

Anyhow, today’s poem is from Allison Joseph, the author of 2018’s poetry collection, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman. Born in London, she teaches the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale MFA program in Creative Writing, and is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review, according to the Academy of American Poets.

The poem, “Black Santa,” comes from her 2003 poetry collection, Imitation of Life.

Here is the poem in full, and here is an excerpt:

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.

Why does it matter if Santa Claus is black? Or yellow? Or red? Or brown? Santa Claus can be all the things to all the people because he’s a myth we tell ourselves and our children and they will tell their children and so on. But, there is something to be said for representation. Aisha Harris, an opinion writer at various outlets, wrote an article for Slate, which is what Kelly was responding to on Fox, about how despite her father trying to pass off black Santa as the “real thing,” she knew from seeing the culture around her that he wasn’t the real thing. She said, “I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the ‘real thing.'”

Here, though, in Joseph’s poem, it doesn’t actually seem to matter to her or make a difference to her that this Santa not only isn’t white, but that he’s rather decrepit looking, smells gross, and pretty much is the lowest of low depictions of Santa Claus because he’s a department store Santa Claus. That’s like calling a cop a mall cop, apparently. If anything, despite the poem being called, “Black Santa,” it almost seems more like a story about class differentiation than race? That is, you get the sense that if the girl in the poem came from a more well-to-do family, she’d see a more well-to-do Santa Claus instead of the department store knock-off. Still, not entirely, because by the end, she’s talking about how nobody could’ve told her differently that Santa couldn’t look like her with “brown eyes, face, skin.” So, that representation — reflection of herself — is still important.

On a meta level, though, something I think a lot about is how much my own experiences and thoughts bleed into my writing, particularly poems. Joseph had something to say about that, too. In an interview with Long River Review, Joseph made an interesting point about memory and poetry as quasi-memoir, saying, “I feel that what I’m invoking is true even if it isn’t literal truth. I always tell my students: if in your poem you want it to be a rainy day but it was actually sunny, you can make it rainy.” She mentioned that, in part, because when she went back to look at the real photo of black Santa, he didn’t look that bad, she said, but in her memory, he was sickly and either drank too much or smoked too much or both. Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? But she’s right. (Now if you were writing an actual memoir, I would aim for the truth as it actually was.)

Overall, this poem made me think a lot about race, class, myth-making, poetry-as-memoir, and how weird it is that some people in our culture hold on to the idea of a “white” Santa Claus (or Jesus), as if anything else would make the myth less-than. Which, seems like a way of telling on themselves, as it were. The depiction of this black Santa, this decrepit department store Santa, is going to stick with me for a while. It’s a strong image!

What do you make of this poem?

Poet Allison Joseph.

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