Maybe Dad found him in an antique store. Maybe he came from my grandmother’s house – she had a collection of these caricatures – owned with no irony but instead with a sense for quaintness or cuteness or maybe even nostalgia. Wherever he came from, Septimus is now mine, and he sits beside my desk.
When Dad first gave him to me, I hid him – tucked him in the tall cabinets above the kitchen stove. Then, I moved him to my office, against the side of a shelf where only I could see him.
But now, he sits in plain sight – his exaggerated ears and lips, his outfit – somewhere between porter and minstrel – the same red as our tractor here on the farm. His hand out to take a penny and swallow it. Black-faced, yellow-eyed. Horrible, gorgeous, honest. A perfect reminder.
Septimus reminds me every day of where I come from. From an African man named Emanuel who was freed in 1651 and who bought 50 acres of land and who was the first man to carry our family name – Cambow then Cumbo – in the United States. From his descendants who married Lumbee, black, and white people and gave me cousins that speak to the falseness of racial construction and the beauty of loving big. From my grandparents whose attitudes on people of color were not vicious but are not ones I’d like to emulate. From my parents who overcame their parents’ attitudes to teach my brother and I that equality is a given, that respect is handed to anyone because of their existence.
I have come to love the way Septimus’ ears tilt back when I lift his hand to his mouth and to treasure the way he looks over me each day, his eyes wide and his smiled fixed – just to be sure I live love into the legacy I have been handed like a shiny copper penny that I swallow with each breath.
When you see images that caricature groups of people – sports’ team mascots, toys, movie roles – how do you respond?
If you’d like to watch a great film that addresses the idea of stereotypes and their power in popular culture, check out Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. It’s an amazing film that will change you.
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