“In the body’s own words, it cannot live like a vegetable in the country.” I am twenty-one and sitting on a bunk in a shotgun house in Mid-City, New Orleans, reading C.D. Wright. After a few conversations on the phone with a professor at the University of New Orleans, I have come here, weeks after graduating college, to help with an oral history project about the experiences of people who lived through Katrina.
It’s no longer taboo to admit, as an American Jew, that you have a Christmas tree. Some people call it a Hanukkah bush, which is about as absurd as someone diplomatically wishing you “happy holidays” after the eighth day of Hanukkah. It’s a Christmas tree, and some Jews, whose religious services, as a friend pointed out, will never be broadcast on the local news, long ago decided they wanted in on the holiday cheer, and that there’s no shame in that.
My husband and I are yard-sale junkies, like our mothers before us. When we walk in our neighborhood, we rarely pass a cluster of rusty tea-kettles and CD-holders without taking a closer look. In our primes, we were both shameless appropriators of sidewalk goods: in Cambridge, MA, I once carried a plywood bookshelf nearly a mile home. His greatest find: a complete set of nesting screwdrivers. Alas, the great New York bed-bug crisis of 2010, along with our adult wisdom about the protein contents of other people’s futons, has made us wary of taking home anything upholstered.
In blending Cassie’s childlike fantasy with altruism and justice, Ringgold highlights not only one child’s ability to use play to prepare for the stresses of the adult world, but also the power fantasy maintains even for adults when it comes to seeking justice and defining freedom. Flight may be a typical childhood dream, but it’s also a deep motif of resistance in African-American folklore. (In 1985, author Virginia Hamilton packaged that motif expressly for young readers in her gorgeous collection The People Could Fly.) While Cassie’s dress changes color above the George Washington Bridge, the page is bordered with pieces of Ringgold’s story quilt–in which Cassie’s story originally appeared–a testament to the idea that the dream/memory is not only Cassie’s, but that of an entire community.
Who really gets to imagine? Not just to make things up, but to use imagination to navigate the world? As educational tools, illustrated books that give credence not only to children’s waking, real-world experiences, but also to the transformative power of their play, seem most often earmarked for privileged children, just as, for adults, the writing of fiction rooted in pure invention or methodical research, rather than autobiographical experience, is received most seamlessly when it’s done by white authors.