Dear Pecola and Claudia, Shirley Temple Is Dead

Dear Pecola and Claudia, Shirley Temple Is Dead

I just heard about Shirley Temple Black's death. I am an African-American woman who associates the child star with my childhood. Apparently she passed away last night, Monday, February 10, on my birthday. At age 85, she was almost 30 years older than I am now, born one year later than my mother. But in my mind, she's still around 6 years old, the symbol of a sweet little girl who can make it through any crisis.

Shirley Temple in Baby Takes a Bow
Image: © face to face/ZUMAPRESS.com

Perhaps, even, she is the first media image I encountered that seemed to prescribe what a perfect female child should be according to Hollywood: cute and curly-headed, sunny and pleasing. How was I to know then that girl was myth?

During the 1960s, it seemed almost every week one of the television stations was running one of Shirley Temple's movies, usually on a Saturday afternoon. Sometimes I'd sit with my cousins around the black and white television in my grandmother's home in New Orleans's Gert Town. Sometimes I'd watch alone in my 7th Ward childhood home. Reruns or not, we'd watch her adventures as one character or another. And after the studios colorized the black and white films, we watched again.

This was pre-800 channels, pre-cable. It was either the Little Rascals with Buckwheat, Cowboys killing "Indians," the Three Stooges, or Shirley Temple. Thank goodness for books, but even in those we were hard-pressed to find positive images of people like us.

Most of her films were more than 20 years old when I first saw them, and although my favorite was The Little Princess (1939), when I hear Shirley Temple's name, I see her walking down that airplane aisle singing "On the Good Ship, Lollipop" in Bright Eyes (1934). That may be the image that pops up first because that's often the clip played when anyone discusses Shirley Temple in a documentary or child stars in general from that era.

I link Shirley Temple with happy times. She was innocent, I was innocent, often the center of attention in my family because my parents had struggled to have a child. I had a grandmother, a nurturing aunt, a father and mother all in the same town who I saw daily, and sometimes relatives from California or Tennessee would visit. They made me feel special, too. For the first eight years of my life, I was spoiled. After that is another story.

Back then it was common to coif little girls with "Shirley Temple curls" for holidays and other special occasions. She was so popular that a child's drink, a non-alcoholic cocktail, was named after her. Sometimes, when my parents took me with them to Dooky Chase Restaurant, I'd have one. But now, oh, what creepiness, the symbolism of a little black girl in the 1960s South imbibing Shirley Temple.

And yet, I was not fascinated with Shirley Temple the way the fictional character Pecola Breedlove is in Toni Morrison's classic novel The Bluest Eye. I had no Shirley Temple dolls, no cups with her blond curls shining and her blue eyes staring at me. In fact, I'm not even sure I registered that Shirley Temple had either blond hair or blue eyes because I first watched her in black and white. To me, Shirley Temple was just another white face on television in a time when black faces rarely appeared.

However, by the time I was six years old in 1966, I was aware that many white people did not want black people around them. After all, the ugliness of racism revealed itself on the nightly news. I doubt my parents removed me from the room when the footage rolled of dogs let loose on black teens and high pressure water hoses blasted black bodies during the marches. And these scenes played again over the years as the Civil Rights struggle remained in the news.

Also, I had a personal experience when I was about 4 or 5 years old that I still recall. My mother and I boarded a public bus in New Orleans. It was the mid-sixties, so the buses had been desegregated for at least six years by then. There must not have been many window seats because I did not sit by mother. I sat by the window in a seat next to a white woman. I guess, now, the woman must have been in her late fifties. Soon after I sat next to her, the woman huffed, got up and moved, clearly angry. My mother, watching, called me to her and said loudly, "That's okay, baby. Anybody who doesn't want to be by you is missing the opportunity to know a wonderful little girl." But I was not a dull child, so while I did not yet know the word "rejected," I recognized disgust and knew the woman thought something was wrong with me.

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