“Please God, not Little Black Sambo again,” she said much louder than she’d intended. Mrs. Clune fixed her with a long cold stare, turning up her nose like she smelled something stinky, before quieting the giggles in the 4th grade class with a slight hand gesture. Mrs. Clune had read Little Black Sambo to the class every day for the last three weeks. She always made a flourish of showing the offending illustrations. Sambo’s dark face jumping off the tattered pages. His inky black skin hurtful and mocking.
Laney squirmed, slipped down in her seat as far as she could, wishing to disappear. Why little ‘Black’ Sambo? Why not Little ‘Brown’ Sambo or, even better, Little ‘Colored’ Sambo? Before, Laney had never really felt particularly “dark,” or gave color much thought. But every time the word ‘black’ was shot-out aloud, reproachful eyes focused directly on her.
Seeking an ally, she looked to Fake Jimmy who quickly turned away. Laney wasn’t surprised. Fake Jimmy always avoided her eyes and never spoke to her. This was in staunch contrast with Real Jimmy who had never treated her that way.
Real Jimmy was her friend and partner. Not because they were the only two colored kids in the class. Not some brown on brown attraction that drew them in like a magnet. No, Laney had many friends in school, little girls of all descriptions. In the school yard, boys and girls playing together was a bigger taboo than for them to play with kids of varied colors. But Jimmy was the exception. He just fit right in. He could play double-dutch or hopscotch with the best of them.
Laney and Jimmy ate lunch together. They argued about who was the best hula hooper and which song would remain on Mo-town’s top ten, Smoky Robinson’s “Shop Around” or the Marvelette’s “Mr. Postman.” Jimmy would re-braid Laney’s hair when it came loose and never complain about the greasy Dixie Peach pomade.
Sometimes, Jimmy would draw blue finger paint lines on his face and girl-wiggle around, shaking shoulders, one wrist limp, impersonating Mrs. Clune who, he dubbed, ‘Blue Sambo.’ Not so much because of those drab blue smocks that she always wore in class or because they mimicked her steel blue eyes. But more because of the fine blue veins that branched throughout her papery translucent skin. After awhile, Laney started calling Jimmy “My Blue Sambo.”
On the block things were different. Laney could happily play ‘tea party’ with the girls, or jet off to play stickball with the boys. After a while her freewheeling versatility rubbed off on Jimmy who proved to be as skilled at stickball as he was at jump rope.
Laney especially valued her friendship with Jimmy, in the classroom, when Mrs. Clune did things that made her feel ‘uneasy’. There was something about the way Mrs. Clune never looked at her, smiling, the way she did with other kids. She rarely called on Laney when she raised her hand but always called on her when she didn’t. After awhile she’d stopped trying. Then Jimmy would do something to make her laugh. Whenever Mrs. Clune read Black Sambo, Jimmy would grin and do his Blue Sambo shoulder shakes and they’d both crack-up.
Mrs. Clune’s treatment of Laney was nothing compared to how she treated Jimmy. He got yelled at or sent to the principal for the smallest infraction. She’d sit him in the corner wearing a dunce hat. Once she marched him around the building wearing a red rubber nose and a sign that proclaimed he was a clown. Jimmy just grinned his big broad ‘you don’t hurt me,’ grin and bowed to his audience.
One day when his parents were called, instead of his weepy mother coming in as usual, his huge mountain of a father appeared. With his jaw set, his pulse thumping in his temples, his eyes ablaze, he growled Jimmy from the room. Jimmy winked at Laney. He mouthed the words, “I got this.” He shook his shoulders, waved his wrist and grinned at her as he was dragged away. But Laney did not laugh. She doubted he really ‘had this.’
Jimmy wasn’t in school the next day, or the day after that, or the week after that. Mrs. Clune said that Jimmy’s family went down south because his Grandma died and that they would return soon. Laney missed her friend. Everyday she’d turn in her seat willing him to be there, missing his grinning face. After two months had passed she stopped looking for him. The sight of his empty desk hurt her heart.
Then one day, when Mrs. Clune was taking attendance, she called out his name as she did everyday. But on this day a small voice replied, “Here.” Laney spun around and almost fell off her chair. There in Jimmy’s place sat a stranger. A colored boy who wasn’t Jimmy at all! He had similar skin tone to Jimmy, though this boy seemed slightly lighter and somewhat smaller. Something about him looked like he could be related to Jimmy but his eyes were dull and resigned and he was completely devoid of any big broad grin. Clearly, not her cherished Blue Sambo.
And as if this, alone, was not enough of a shock, looking around the room, she realized no one else seemed to notice! Here sat an impostor. He sat at Jimmy’s desk, answered to Jimmy’s name and no one batted an eye, not the teacher, not her classmates, not the principal or the kids in the schoolyard…no one.
It took a while for her to corner him, confront him. He was skillful at avoiding her. But when she finally caught up with him, she whispered, “You’re not Jimmy. Where is Jimmy?”
To this he hissed, a fierce sharp-edged hiss. He was a cat all puffed up and fearsome, a dull eyed rattlesnake ready to strike. He spat out these words, “Mind…your…business!”