The book that got me in trouble wasn’t even mine. My youngest sister, Robin, had received it as a gift. But knowing that it was forbidden, my sisters placed it in my care because they were younger and I was the sibling most skilled at hiding things. I had no idea how my mother discovered the secret stash spot between my mattress and box spring. Either she knew magic, or I wasn’t as good at hiding as I had thought. Regardless, she was about to perform her duty as chief justice of our family’s House Court, and I was going to be the defendant.
Read: American cynicism has reached a breaking point
Yes, we had a whole judicial system in the Harriot home, which my mother had instituted to give my three sisters and me the chance to learn from our transgressions. There was no court of appeals. Even the neighbors knew about our system. (Of course they did. Who else would serve as jurors?)
That Friday afternoon, I quickly assembled my legal defense team (my sisters), and we decided that I should throw myself on the mercy of the court. Given that I was already in trouble, it was my responsibility to conceal a wider conspiracy that included dramatic Dr. Seuss recitations. We knew that if my mother found out about our pro-pork performances, we might not be allowed back outside indefinitely. My mother didn’t play about such things. After all, she was sitting in the yellow chair!
Before conservatives threw a hissy fit about Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ recent decision to stop publishing six of his books, I assumed most people knew that Seuss, despite the support he expressed for civil rights, was capable of depicting human beings of other races in demeaning ways. Painting Seuss as a victim of rabid “wokeness” is like saying police brutality is a recent epidemic that began when people started uploading cellphone footage. No, it’s in the news because some white people just started noticing. So, calm down—Dr. Seuss hasn’t been “canceled.”
Trust me, I know. As someone who grew up with a mother who was saved, sanctified, and filled with the holy-but-defiant spirit of Malcolm X, I am intimately familiar with “cancel culture.” Nearly all the standard accoutrements of American youth were banned from my mother’s house. Christmas was for heathens. Toy guns were forbidden because they caused violence. I was diagnosed with ADHD—back then, it was called “Mikey is too hyper”—so, according to the American Mama Association, sugar and any food containing Yellow No. 5 dye was a pleasure meant only for weekends.
In addition to banning Dr. Seuss and pork-related literature, my mother was very intentional about limiting our contact with white people. My three sisters and I were homeschooled during our elementary years. We lived in a Black neighborhood, attended a Black church, and were citizens of a country that once dreamed up an idea called “segregation,” so we didn’t have much contact with white people anyway. But my mother also altered the cover of children’s books or sometimes removed them completely if they had white faces. When she read bedtime stories, she’d substitute our names for those of the characters. She would even record cassette tapes, so that when she worked the night shift of her second job, we could still fall asleep to the sound of her reading. (Later, when I read the Encyclopedia Brown series myself, I thought, This sounds like a white version of Encyclopedia Mikey that my mom used to read!)