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King Cole: The Black Santa:
One African-American who Shattered All Seasonal Stereotypes
By psychologist, Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, B.L.T.
**** Phantom Tollbooth readers:
As a child who grew up in a Caucasian home, it never occurred to me that Santa Claus could be African American. It was always a white Santa that made my season bright. Growing up on the prairies of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I didn't even know that African Americans existed until late childhood. There was a grand total of one African American student in my High School. When I went to a Christmas party, not only did I have to go through tons of white snow to get there, but when I arrived, all I saw were faces of white, or variations thereof, depending on who was rich enough to have just come back from an exotic vacation.
Without fail, when I went to visit Santa as a child, he was as white as white can be.
When I grew up, I did as the apostle Paul suggested. I put away childish things, including my belief in Santa Claus. To draw from terms seminal psychological theorist Jean Piaget brought to light, I had to “assimilate” to adult culture and “accommodate” myself to a world that included more than one or two races and included only a make believe Santa Claus, not a real one. Part of my assimilation and accommodation process was pleasant, even though it required change, but it was also accompanied by a certain degree of discomfort.
I was forced to re-examine Santa Claus, not only along the lines of fact or fiction, but also along the lines of race. For example, as an adult, I began to pay attention to the many wonderful Christmas gifts offered by Nat King Cole in the form of the most beautiful Christmas recordings I had ever heard, contained on an album called __Christmas Favorites__. It gradually occurred to me that the closest thing to a real-life Santa was this African American singer. The skinny, black-as-coal Nat King Cole had more than enough of what it would take to fill Santa's boots. Each song slid down the chimney of my ear cannels like soft, freshly fallen snow. Though I had heard some of his Christmas songs on the radio, I really didn't discover Nat King Cole as a "Black Santa" until I picked up a vinyl copy of his Christmas album at a flea mart.
My stereotypical view of the great "white" Santa was radically altered by a stereo-type black, round, flat vinyl Santa "sleigh" that transported me through the wind-swept snowy skies at a speed of 33 1/3 RPMs.
This ride took me to places in my mind I had never been to before. It turned my lethargic mind into the type of active, inquiring mind that pioneer psychological theorist William James spoke about in his __Principles of Psychology__.
Long-lost memories from childhood were reawakened as I began to trace some of these songs to toddler-hood. I had heard the songs as a child; songs like “The Christmas Song,” “Adeste Fideles,” and “O Tannenbaum” with the same level of appreciation that I was now re-experiencing them. But back then, I assumed that these songs came from the vocal caverns of a white man-someone resembling the jolly, white Burl Ives. Suddenly, the slightly skewed knowledge that I acquired and stored for so many years was transformed.
Parts of my brain, the action
of which could probably not even be detected via the most sophisticated
cognitive scanning gear, became simultaneously stimulated. No drugs,
I repeat, no drugs were involved. (I prefer Jesus, my anti-drug of choice).
And when Nat sang songs about Jesus, as a baby, in “Away in a Manger,”
I could see, almost smell, the hay in the stable. I could almost
hear the baby Jesus crying. I could almost feel the presence of the
three kings and the wise men (not to mention Mary and Joseph as they kept
a solicitous watch over the newborn baby). It was the power of rediscovery.
It led me to the metacognition analysis of prejudice and seasonal stereotypes
that prompted me to write the song, “Black Santa,” and, more recently,
The metacognitive phenomenon I wish to examine is the formation and perpetuation of seasonal stereotypes. How and why do they get started, and what keeps them going? Why do we create Santa in our own image? Why do we need the fictional Santa, or the historical Christ to be white if we happen to be white? Why does the idea of a Black Santa, if we are white, of if we are of another culture, create so much anxiety that we exclude the prospect from our conscious minds?
First of all, when we consider the perceptual processes that we, as humans, engage in on a daily basis, and the many ambiguous visual, auditory and tactile stimuli that we are subjected to, it makes sense that we would try to apply a simplification strategy to our perceptions.
Ambiguity is experienced by many people as a threat perhaps because, at least from a Darwinian survival point of view, clarity has historically carried with it survival value. If a caveman saw that an approaching animal was clearly a grizzly bear on the prowl and not a domesticated dog, he would know that running may be a useful strategy to employ. If he were left with any degree of uncertainty, his hesitation could spell the end of his life.
Putting things in distinct boxes, a metacognitive process known as compartmentalization, is a metacognitive carried over from the caveman era as strategy designed for our own protection. To a certain degree, the strategy has merit. Before international terrorists became more active in recruiting those who didn't look like themselves, racial profiling (a simplification strategy) had a certain degree of survival value associated with it. It still does, but to a lesser degree.
However, what possible survival value is there in systematically keeping out all black Santa's from our collective unconscious? Some would argue that mixing cultural metaphors, or seasonal symbols, much like intermarriage, ultimately causes ethnic groups to lose their distinctive cultural roots. I am all for preserving distinctive cultural roots. But when we so rigidly apply a metacognitive strategy of preservation via simplification, we lose something in the process. We lose the possibility of unity ever becoming a possibility among heterogeneous cultures. Must we be so exclusive in a celebration of a savior who came to earth to offer salvation to all people of all races and all colors?
When I looked at the album
cover, and noted that Nat King Cole was black, the false iconic or visual
memory of a white Nat King Cole was realigned to fit reality. I no
longer exclude black Santa's from imagination. Sometimes, especially
when I am under stress (a phenomena that is know to trigger regression),
or in times of danger, I revert back to a simplification strategy.
When my survival or my sense of self is at stake, exaggerating the consistency
between my past and present understanding of the world (a cognitive phenomenon
known as consistency bias), has survival value, so, right or wrong I resort
to it. But every time Christmastime rolls around, and I pick up my Nat
King Cole Christmas album, I am reminded that the world is big enough and
worthy enough to receive the man I have come to know as Black Santa. Although
he is not the subject of my seasonal "shrink rap" song by the same title,
Cole, and other magnanimous souls like him, with his skin color, opened
my narrow mind just wide enough to allow such a story, and such a song
to creep into my head.