"If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people." –Virginia Woolf
The most precious picture I had from my childhood is of my grandfather and me. In it, we are set against the cheap, tract-housing kitchen cupboards in the home where I grew up. I’m maybe seven, standing proudly in a disheveled floral print shirt and an un-matching elastic-waist A-line skirt, which my mom made using a homemade newspaper pattern. I’m beaming, a huge missing-tooth smile, my hair in various unruly pigtails. My skinny grandfather sits next to me in a chair borrowed from the kitchen table. He’s wearing his oxygen tubes and a sweat suit. And he’s tired, resting his head on one of his hands. From the corners of his eyes he peers at me, his smile betraying that he doesn’t mind that I’ve decorated the few remaining strands of his silvery hair with brightly colored, mismatched ribbons and plastic barrettes. Though I may have lost the photo some years back during the process of stealing it from my parent’s collection to add to my own, I can see it as vividly as if I were right now holding it in my hands.
Growing up, my grandfather was a person who I always knew loved me. Even though, for most of my childhood, he was dying of emphysema. Even though, for most of my childhood he was tired, grumpy, and in pain. His medical fate was probably inevitable: he had worked for many years on the railroad at the Kennecott copper mines and worse, he’d been a heavy smoker. Despite being sickly and slowly-dying for all the time that I knew him, he always allowed for my intrusive and bothersome affection, and he returned it in his own way. Except for the last year of his life, in every memory I have, he was teasing me. And when he did, he always, always called me monkey.
When I became pregnant decades later, I didn’t have to conjure a term of endearment for my unborn son. He became my little, tiny monkey with as little thought as breathing. What could better express my love? I had even registered him for a brown hooded monkey towel, which I had received and quickly washed. It hung months in advance of my delivery date, somewhat decoratively on a hook near the changing table, awaiting the arrival of my little monkey.
One night after work, my Nigerian-born husband Samuel and white-American me were casually chatting about the day and the coming days that would bring our son. Sam was sitting in the living room on the brown couch we’d gotten off Craigslist a few months back when we’d moved into this ever-so-slightly bigger apartment to accommodate our unexpected addition. The couch was too soft, but frankly, we’d had worse. I was a thin apartment wall and maybe ten feet away from him (in the office/guestroom/nursery) organizing a blessed mountain of hand-me-down onseies and baby pajamas when I started going on and on about my little monkey ala “I can’t wait to meet our little monkey!”
“Uh, you know,” Sam began hesitantly, from the other room “you know you can’t call our black child a monkey? Right?”
I paused, held my breath. My face flushed then went cold. My mouth dried up. Although we were not far apart, there was that wall separating us, and I was glad. I couldn’t speak.
When I’ve shared this story out loud, this is the point in the story that some have gotten hung up. There have been many who don’t like the way Sam said this to me, the perceived tone, and feel as a matter of fact one parent shouldn’t have veto power over other parents words of affection—that I should be able to call our child… whatever it is I want. For the record, and maybe this is all that needs to be said: not one of those people has ever been black. But also, his tone, his statement, was brief because it assumed, as he did of me, that I knew why I couldn’t or at least that I had the capacity to understand why I couldn’t. Or maybe better said, he knew I would understand I couldn’t if I actually cared about how it would hurt people. And so he continued.
“It’s too loaded,” he said “There’s too much history with white Americans and black people.” And words like. Like. Monkey.
Mouth cotton-dry, ears ringing like a small bomb had gone off, I still said nothing. I’d like to believe I wasn’t saying anything because I was so focused on listening, on hearing my husband. But I think we all know it is because I had no idea how to respond to having not realized. To being confronted with all I still don’t understand. Is it obvious to say I was embarrassed? To say I was ashamed? That I was surprised that I hadn’t made this connection already?
And there were other feelings too, ones that felt unfair to have. Feelings like a deep ache, a crushing weight in the center of my chest, an elephant walking on my heart. What was this? Grief? My grandfather called me monkey.
I’m white. Sam’s black. Any children would be both. We had discussed these realities before having children, before marrying even. Neither of us went into this life together thoughtlessly. I knew I might one day raise children that may not look like me, about whom careless playground mothers might ask from where they’d been adopted, that his racial identity would be a topic strangers would find appropriate as small talk. (But this seems nowhere near as painful as the treatment black mothers of biracial children get… I have friends who have been asked with regularity if they are the nanny.) I also knew that as a white mother I would be raising children who may be considered black. I would be raising children who likely would not have the privilege, as I did, of not making connections about the behaviors of the majority culture—my culture—and the way we use words. Words like monkey.
Perhaps influenced by scaffolding from the previous century—in which Darwin had theorized that humans evolved from primates, that our closest non-human relatives were African apes—“monkey” became a very popular racial slur in America around the beginning of the 20th century. Or perhaps it was influenced by the exhibition of Ota Benga, the Congolese pygmy who was brought to America for the World Fair in 1904 and later held in the Bronx Zoo by eugenists who believed studying him would be of great value. Benga was encouraged to stay with the monkeys and so for a time he was kept in the monkey cages. He was kept in the monkey cages.
Among the myriad probable influences that led to the popularity of the monkey slur there is mainly, this: there was a felt need for it. Yes, after the intrusion of the emancipation proclamation in 1863, which began what was supposed to be a monumental shift for black Americans, who were then free, the Southern way of life was under attack. The freedom of slaves threatened the white southern way of life financially and in various practical and psychological ways. New methods of subjecting black Americans were going to be needed to ensure some relative stability of the social order. Monkey.
The so-called Jim Crow laws separated out the places blacks weren’t welcome, provided means to block voting, and kept wages of the black American community low enough to retain some of that way of life. But it would further help, wouldn’t it, if these blacks weren’t fully human. Monkey. Prior to their emancipation, black Americans had only been considered partially human—three fifths to be exact—but even that partial humanity was only for the benefit of the political representation of the white masters. And so, what better way to subdue someone who threatens your way of life, who has just (technically) been granted legal status as a five-fifths human, than to make them a caricature of a human, or rather to once again make them less than human. Inhuman. Primate. To remind them that no law would change their status in the white mind. Monkey. On top of all this, let us not overlook that these caricatures were entertaining to whites throughout the country and the world, engraining in generations the amusing superiority of the white race. Variations would take hold in different areas of America: “porch monkey,” “jungle monkey,” “ghetto monkey.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as ancient history—which, on occasion, I’ve been informed it is—if it were. But the caricature remains. The Obama family knew it all too well during their tenure. And the contemporary research done to probe white culture for the pervasiveness and impact of this caricature on our beliefs and attitudes, is soul crushing. Phillip Atiba Goff, now the Franklin A. Thomas Professor in Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “spent two days under the covers” after analyzing six studies from 2004-2009 that showed the prevalence of the unconscious monkey imagery in the white American psyche. But most black Americans don’t need Dr. Goff’s research. They know this already. They, in fact, may be regularly faced with having to explain why this term—monkey—can, in its turn, be as offensive or more so than words avoided at all costs, words we reduce to a single letter, “n,” so as to avoid actually letting it escape from our mouths.
So clueless does white America seem to be on this topic that in 2006, for example, warehousing superstore Costco put two new made-in-China dolls on its shelves: a white one and a black one. The white one was Panda themed, wearing a little hat that said “pretty Panda,” with themed bib, a shirt, and bottle. She was complete with a little stuffed animal, a Panda of course. The black one also had a themed hat, a bib, a bottle and a stuffed object. The theme was monkey. “Lil monkey” as her hat named her, also held in her hands a banana.
When customers began complaining, Costco was shocked, said they had no idea it was a slur. And after a slew of such complaints, they finally pulled the product from the shelves. Assuming that this was just a careless oversight (though we can’t ever be certain that it was), it is truly amazing, given the prevalence and pain of this slur, that it had not occurred to even one of their employees or contractors in the entire supply chain. Possibly this oversight speaks to the supply chain itself. But, it certainly it speaks to an utter lack of ability on the part of most of white America to understand the depth of pain this epitaph conjures, because this problem isn’t with Costco (or not with Costco only).
Now, in 2018, just days into the new year and a fresh indication of this phenomena. Fast fashion brand H&M featured a set of little boys hoodies, recycled, in several colors, each with a different print. For example the orange hoodie said “Mangrove Jungle Survival Expert” with a picture of a tiger while the green hoodie said, print only, no imagery, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” The orange hoodie, the jungle survival expert, had a little white boy modeling it while the green coolest monkey in the jungle hoodie had a little black boy modeling.
The shock was immediate and widespread. Black artist collaborators ended their relationships with H&M over social media while within days the brand had to close all the doors of their many stores in South Africa as a protest group called the Economic Freedom Fighters began trashing stores, wrecking displays, kicking over racks and mannequins. The family of the boy (Kenyans living in Sweden) was initially confused, even defensive and irritated, feeling people were judging them for allowing it and/or for not realizing. Later they doubled back that people had a right to be outraged, they just didn’t share the outrage. Even later they moved out of their house fearing for their safety.
It is hard to know how this happened. Was someone in the marketing department having a private laugh thinking no one would notice? Was it “an honest mistake?” Another chain of people totally unaware of how it would be perceived? And which is worse, an overt racist thinking themselves clever with their performance? Or a slew of people who, like me, after as much history and conversation there has been around the depth of insult and injury that correlating primates and black people together can cause, had no idea? It is troubling, no, infuriating, how little me and people who look like me, don’t really chose to understand about the histories of other Americans (for starters), that we don’t know until we have to. Until, like H&M, we have to pull the product from our shelves and make a new hire whose title—“diversity leader”—will always exist between quotes, and just eat the shame.
As the world was in the midst of processing it’s anger (some) or confusion (others) about sweatshirt gate, the President of the United States referred to all African countries, Haiti, and El Salvador as shitholes. And then denied it while saying he was the “least racist” person there is. Not that I think it should be a litmus test for racism, but I can’t help but wonder what President Trump thinks of the word monkey? Would he laugh if he heard it? Would he, if you raised a concern to the slur’s speaker between cocktails at Mar-a-Lago, pat you hard on the arm a few times saying ‘lighten up?’
This word—monkey—which summoned for me such a feeling of being loved it is nearly indescribable, is also a cruel word, a painful word, a very unsafe word. I don’t know which of these realizations hurts more: that someone, someday, might call my child a monkey to hurt him; that I wasn’t going to be able to call my own child my little monkey to love him; or, that my husband had to be the one to remind me—that I hadn’t realized all of this, on my own, and sooner. I suppose most things are theoretical until they aren’t—and with privilege, part of the gig, even for people trying (and failing) to be woke, is the unchanging truth of not having to realize. Becoming the mother of a black boy, well, the gig was up. Not realizing is not an option I could afford to exercise. I would have to move beyond theory. I would have to do better.
When my grandfather was getting close to the end of his life, I gave him a stuffed monkey with velcro on its hands. He usually kept it wrapped around the pole of his hospital bed. He asked me once and sternly not to remember him that way, in his bed, so sick. But what could I do? How else could I remember him but as my sick and dying grandfather who loved me even then, who loved his little monkey? A few months after he died, my grandmother hastily handed me back that stuffed monkey with the velcro on his hands, saying flatly: “Here. You should probably have this.”
The night he died was a school night. I was eleven, or maybe ten. My dad was having a beer at Bunz & Company on the other side of town, which he didn’t actually do that often. The phone rang late in the evening. I went into my parents’ room when I heard my mom crying, still on the call with her sister. Their father had died. My grandfather. My mom had me call the bar, had me ask to have my dad come home. “Grandpa is dead,” is what I probably told him. (I was no more eloquent when I was also the one to tell him my grandmother died, so many years later.)
That’s all I remember until the funeral.
At the funeral I learned that I wouldn’t again want to participate in a viewing because you can’t un-view later. That image is yours to keep in the place of so many preferred images. And I had been so clearly asked to remember him differently. After the funeral, my cousin’s rich grandparents from the other side of her family bought us McDonald’s cheeseburgers and took us back to my grandmother’s house. We drew pictures of our dead grandfather, as requested. Someone had bought us special crayons, metallic colors even. In my drawing, grandpa was lying in his casket in the middle of a meadow. A silver thread led from his body to the sky and settled just above the clouds as if an unraveled ball of yarn. I guess it was his soul.
I no longer believe that heaven is so uncomplicated. And I no longer believe that heaven is up. (But to be honest, I don’t know where it is.)
I do believe that my grandfather loved me. And he is dead. And I was his monkey. And my baby was supposed to be my monkey. Yet there was nothing to protest. Sam was right—I couldn’t call our black baby, my monkey. I was going to have to let it go.
Sam was still on our too-soft, brown couch and so I sat down beside him, grieved, a bit stunned, deeply ashamed. He felt he had to explain further, which is painful, but important. “It’s just, what if you call him a monkey in public, in front of black people. You understand? Can you imagine how that would feel? What they would think?”
“I know. I get it. I…”
“Never, in public,” he started and then paused “but to remember your grandfather,” he paused again and then inadvertently began my first proper lesson in the centuries old practice of black Americans living bifurcated lives in America, “we can call him our monkey at home, in private.”
And so, within the four walls of our small apartment, sometimes, we do.
A. Awosanya has had creative nonfiction appear in PANK and poetry in Brittle Paper: An African Literary Experience. She has a BA in Community Studies from UC Santa Cruz and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She loves reading, writing, and facilitating other writers in telling their stories. Awosanya recently moved back to northern California after nearly four years in east Africa. She is loving the abundance of parks to explore with her son in California but missing her friends, the mild equator weather, marabou storks, and oddly, even the street preachers.