“He lives in an ordinary, all-American sort of place…” begins an article by David Mehegan in the Boston Globe on April 8. I’ve seen that phrase used loads of times. Whenever I see it, I know that the story is about someone white who is usually middle-class. “All-American” is a way of saying white without having to actually spell it out.
In this particular article, “Story of the Weak” about Jeff Kinney’s bestselling book for children, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Mehegan goes on to say that the book is about “the every day life of a regular boy in the sort of school situation that readers of any age might recognize.” When’s the last time, if ever, you’ve seen or heard descriptions like “all American” or “regular boy” used to describe a boy who was Black, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Native America, etc.? I can’t recall ever seeing these words used in the context of a Black or Brown boy’s experience.
I’m not complaining about the book – haven’t read it. It seems funny and something kids would like and me, too, probably. I did notice that the illustration shown in the article shows only white boys. The reporter goes on to note that “the girls are always drawn exactly the same, except for their hair, but the boys all look grossly different from one another. It’s a message to the reader that Greg ‘gets’ boys, but doesn’t ‘get’ girls so he draws them all the same.” (This could be the topic of another blog.) Let’s get back to my point.
I’ve been encouraging my husband to write a memoir of his boyhood since a year after we started dating. By then I’d learned enough about him to know that his childhood and teenage hood warranted a book because of how filled it was with joy, activities, and love. He did so many things that were unavailable and/or unknowable to me growing up. I’ve always told him that he should call the book, “All American Black Boy.” Now I think I’ll tell him to eliminate the word, “Black” from that title. His book should be called “All American Boy” period.
In it, he could share that he was reared by two loving parents with help from an extended loving family, that he was in the church choir, that he attended the Cooper Community Center, that he participated in the Debate Club and was on student government in high school (Latin School by the way). He could share that he was a frequent escort at high school proms, that he was part of an “integrated” (throw-back word) singing group at Boston Latin. He could talk about the numerous jobs he held, among them selling TV Guide, working at Skippy White’s Record Store near Dudley Station, selling popsicles on an ice cream truck, working at the MDC pool, and working at the oil company in Everett. He could talk about being an acolyte at St. Cyprian’s Church. He remembers being able to ride his bike without fear of being accosted from his family’s home on Columbus Avenue all the way to Dorchester. My husband recalls his love for radio being nurtured in the Junior Achievement Club in high school when they worked in collaboration with WILD radio station in Roxbury. (He is now in hot pursuit of owning a station…or two.) And this is only a short list of things I can call forth right now.
Perhaps in sharing his story as an all-American, “regular” boy, he could underscore the point that a whole lot of Black and Brown boys had “normal” childhoods and act as a counterpoint to the media that spews a limited, one dimensional portrait of Black boys and their families.
This wasn’t the point of Mr. Mehegan’s story. I know that. His story was not about us in any way. It was about an author and his portrait of an “all-American boy.” And that got me started.