My first graders bring in something they like from the outside world to share for Show and Tell every Tuesday morning.
Martin Taccone does his presentation last. He slowly walks up to the head of the class carrying a heavy satchel that looks like it has a bowling ball in it. He carefully takes out something wrapped in a blanket. It’s a ceramic figure that looks like kind of like Mammy, that large black woman who takes care of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
I lose my breath for a minute. Martin and his family are white. Why on earth do they have a black statue like that in a small town like Parkman, Illinois?
Where do you even get such a thing these days?
Martin pulls the top off and shows us that the Mammy is actually a cookie jar. “This is from my kitchen,” he explains to the class. “My mom bakes cookies and puts them in here for me and my brothers to eat. We call her the Cookie Mammy.
The skin tone of Mammy is pure black: nothing brown or lifelike about it. The white of her oversized eyes bug out like a cartoon character and she has big, red pursed lips. She’s wearing a red and white checkered dress and a kerchief on her head. And, of course, she’s got a white apron over her big skirt.
I’m a bit scared to look at Martin holding the mammy cookie jar right out in my class.
My knees are knocking.
In all my years of teaching, this is the most shocking Show and Tell item I have ever seen.
It’s nothing but casual reminder of slavery in America.
The Taccone boy is a wonderful and expressive student. Thankfully, he talks mostly about the different kinds of cookies his mom makes for his family.
But I’m still uncomfortable looking at that garish cookie jar.
I pray to God that none of the students use the “N-word” today. My school district teaches the Civil War right out of a history text book in the higher grades. But a Mammy cookie jar is the America we should ignore. it’s dark, too dark to be nice.
I hope to God that that cookie jar is an antique. What if Martin’s mom got it new at the Walmart? That would make no sense because there are almost no black people in Parkman. We have a few Asians and Hispanics, but no one really thinks about them being any different. They don’t act different and we don’t talk about their color. They just blend in with the rest of us. This isn’t a big city like Chicago. We all get along. We’re all colors.
Martin Taccone finishes his presentation and takes the lid off of the mammy and hands out homemade chocolate chip cookie to each of his classmates. I can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
While the kids are at recess, a conversation with the principal is in order. He gives me the go-ahead to call Martin’s mother. But all Mrs. Taccone wants to do is have a political debate. I explained to her that the principal and I felt that it was inappropriate for Martin to bring the mammy cookie jar in for Show and Tell. Something less controversial would be safer for first grade. I remind her that school isn’t Gone with the Wind.
She defends the cookie jar, claiming that it’s a family heirloom. She dug it out of storage after that big, national news story happened where the white guy shot and killed that young black kid.
Believe me, I understand the need for teachable moments, but a cookie jar in small town Illinois has nothing to do with him getting shot.
And not all parents are going to agree with the way she raises her three sons.
I told her that the classroom—my classroom—must remain neutral.
We don’t need to get into such complicated matters in first grade. There will be plenty of time for that when the children get older.
Mrs. Taccone and I go back at forth at each other for almost half an hour and we finally agreed to disagree about when and how to teach civil rights. She promised me that she would pay better attention to what her son brings to school for Show and Tell in the future.
It’s Tuesday again. I assume it’s going to be just another typical morning of Show and Tell. Again, the last student to do his presentation before lunch is Martin Taccone. I see him dragging that same bowling ball bag to the head of the class.
I’m dumbfounded as he reaches into the bag and pulls out that same cookie jar, only this time Mammy has been painted solid black: the skin, the eyes and lips, the clothes are all the same color of black.
Not a skin tone of black: black like coal. All of the mammy’s details are gone.
If I hadn’t seen the cookie jar before, I might not have known what it was at first.
Yet across the midsection where the white apron was is hand printed, “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in red paint.
“The news makes me sad,” Martin tells the class. “Ferguson, Missouri is only one hundred, sixty-four miles away from Parkman, Illinois. My mom and I painted this jar black when he died. We baked cookies in memory of Michael Brown.”
Martin Taccone hands out homemade cookies to the class once again. This time they are white chocolate chip with nuts.
I’m allergic to nuts.