The doll didn’t have a real name. I (and everyone in my family) just called her my n_____ baby.
She was a molded rubber doll and at one time she was all black. When I was older my mother told me that the doll’s color gradually faded away because I kissed and hugged her too much. You can see some of the remaining black spots on her on the closeup below.
The n_____ baby was my most valued possession. She never left my side. She took care of me, and I tried (and failed) to do the same for her.
She was more than a doll to me, more even than my friend. Like a “blankie”, the n_____ baby was my tangible source of security. She relieved my worry and fear, and she had a way of making everything safe and right with the world.
One awful day – I must have been about 5 years old – I woke up – either in the morning or from a nap. I remember searching for the doll, fumbling around in the blankets, and under the pillow and under the bed. She wasn’t there.
Bewildered, I ran downstairs. I think my mother, my aunt Elsie, and our hired girl, Georgia were in the dining room or the kitchen. “I can’t find my n_____ baby”, I screamed, frantically.
I can’t for the life of me remember who said it but the answer will remain embedded in my memory forever.
Someone said quietly, “The garbage men took the n_____ baby away.”
I ran outside. There was an alley right outside our house on 7th Street SW. Our garbage can – empty – sat in its usual place by the back porch. I remember turning to see if I could stop the garbage truck, but the alley was empty; the truck long gone. And standing there in the alley, numb with shock, it seemed as if the world had come to an end.
I can’t remember anything about what followed but I must have been inconsolable with grief. I do remember that for a long time after, whenever I heard the rattling sound of a garbage truck, i would run and hide, terrified that the garbage men would find me and throw me away, too.
It must have been at Christmas that year that I got my second doll. During the Depression years, kids didn’t get presents like they do today. Things like oranges or Christmas candy from Woolworth’s were the big treats.
On Christmas Eve of that year, though, my mother and father were really excited about something. The house we lived in had a little side parlor that was usually curtained off to conserve heat. My dad made us all stand still and my mother pulled the curtain back. I think the room was full of a lighted Christmas tree and a train or something for my brothers, but all I could pay attention to were two dolls, one was dressed in a pink dress and bonnet and the other exactly like her except that she was dressed in green. They looked a little like these two.
The dolls were presents for my sister Joan and me and had been brought to our house by Santa Claus. Joan’s was the one dressed in pink, and mine was in green. Each one had eyes that could open and close, and a dress, underpants and bonnet. I think they even had shoes and socks.
That was the year Joan stopped believing in Santa Claus because we were upstairs while Mom and Dad were putting the gifts under the tree and she got a glimpse of the scene. They were laughing about being Santa Claus.
We played house and tea parties with the dolls for days. We kept dressing and undressing them, and every few days, we would give them new names.
There’s no telling how long the dressed-up dollys kept our interest or what their final demise was. Joan says she thinks we gave them to our cousin, Patty Rawson. In spite of their organdy and lace and eyelashes and ribbons, it never occurred to me to pretend that the glamorous new doll I’d been given could serve as a replacement for my magnificent n_____ baby. By that Christmas, I had grown old enough to know what “irreplaceable” means.
Once when I was an adult, I asked my mother what had happened to the n_____ baby and why had it gone out in the garbage. She said that as the years had gone on, the doll was in shreds and she was afraid I would choke on a piece of the disintegrating rubber. I was astonished. All those years had gone by and I remembered the doll’s body as if it were unblemished and perfect. I still see her in my mind’s eye that way.
Anyway, like I said, whenever Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rolls around, I find myself thinking about my n_____ baby, not because she was black but because of what I so lovingly called her.
The town we grew up in, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, only had a population of two percent blacks when we were growing up. They lived in their own neighborhood, called Oak Hill. Most of the men worked at the Wilson Meat Packing plant where my father worked for a time. The black men performed the dirtiest jobs, usually those associated with the slaughtering of the animals.
I knew of “negroes” as we called them then, but I never actually met one till I was sixteen. She was a young girl about my age who worked with me at Mercy Hospital.
It wasn’t till I finished my second year of college and went away to school in Washington, D.C. that I became acquainted with many black people. And it was there – at the age of 19 years – that I became aware that other people thought the “n_____” word was an ugly and insulting term. It took all those years before I had had the revelation that “n_____” was something other than the sacred word I believed it to be.
Well, live and learn. Somehow, I think Martin might have understood why I used the n____ word so freely. Of all people, he surely knew that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.