Halloween: Ubangi in the Ozarks
Thursday, October 13, 2011
Halloween: Ubangi in the Ozarks
There used to be a girl near my brother’s age in school who dressed as a cowgirl every single year for Halloween. She wore boots, a brown suede skirt with country stitching, a denim shirt, a cowprint vest, cowboy hat, and she carried a lasso.
After a few years, the costume began to look worn, yellowed, dirty, and by the time we reached middle school, the girl had developed a paunch and a slight moustache.
Being a cute little cowgirl just didn’t work anymore, especially since she looked like Hitler.
Worst of all, a few mothers in town would whisper viciously about the cowgirl’s mother.What kind of mother would send her daughter to school in the same old costume every year? was pretty much the running theme. Any good mother worth her salt made her child’s Halloween costume in the 1960s and 1970s. A great mother, in fact, knew the endless possibilities that an old bedsheet, empty egg cartons, wire hangers and her make-up could provide.
In small town America, the pressure to achieve Halloween perfection was even more intense, because everyone trick-or-treated at everyone’s house, so everyone knew which mothers could sew and, as a result, deeply loved their children, and which neglectful moms covered their kids’ left eyes in duct tape, called them pirates and sent them out with a steak knife.
Halloween presented an ethical dilemna for my mother, an educated woman who worked full time, watched the evening news and had the gall to question what she read in the paper. My mom was a nurse. She stitched people’s wounds. She didn’t hem.
While she enjoyed Halloween, I think she felt it was frivolous, wasn’t as important, say, as saving a life. Now, I always had nice costumes, considering my grandmothers were both accomplished seamstresses – I made an adorable little greenbean as a baby and a passable vampire – but my costumes always lacked a certain Ozarkian je ne sais quoi. Which is perhaps why I yanked on my mother’s blood stained scrubs one fall evening when she got home from work and begged, “You have to make my costume this year!” I think I knew she needed the challenge, and that I needed to take more of a risk.Now, I was certainly a boy with a high sense of drama. I mean, I gasped when a classmate mis-conjugated a verb. But I also felt like – for a boy with a tendency to wear too many ascots and starched pink oxfords – it was my responsibility not to stand out too much in a part of the world whose people, food and houses tended to be a bit too grey for me.
I guess I finally yearned for a costume that was me, a costume that would stun the crowd as I marched around the school gymnasium in our annual Halloween parade.
I wanted Wow! My mother seemed to sense this, and she thought long and hard about what to make for me. And then one evening, I walked into our den to find her lying on our chic, black-and-white plaid ottoman perusing the latest issue of National Geographic, a subscription to which she had received as a Christmas gift the previous year. Once my mother discovered she could learn about Venice and Machu Picchu, or read about Hindus and vineyards in France, she turned her back forever on Better Homes and Gardens. “Come here,” she said, wagging a nail.
She held open the magazine to display a shocking spread of frolicking nude black men and announced, “This is your costume. You will go as a Ubangi tribesman.”
I stared at the photo of a naked, sinewy black man with a schlong the size of our Oster blender and felt a twinge down south, in a place where I’d never felt such a twinge.My mother smiled. Even as a child, I knew her motives: Not only would she be able to show off her caretaking skills by making me a costume that would be the envy for years to come but she could also educate our local community about the world at large.
Although the sensible part of me screamed, Danger!, the dramatic part of me was fascinated with this option, knowing no other Ozarks child in his right mind would dress as a Ubangi tribesman for Halloween – much less even think of such an idea.
Based on the photo my mother showed me, I did, however, outline a few immediate costume demands of her: I would not, under any circumstance, go completely topless, considering I had ample boy-breasts instead of chiseled pecs; I would not stretch my bottom lip with one of my mom’s ashtrays; and, considering my love of candy, I had to carry a pillow case to haul my loot instead of the tiny, plastic skull she had originally suggested.
My mother and I spent the next few days scouring local stores for traditional Ubangi clothing, but it came as little surprise that there weren’t many places to find standard tribal wear in rural America, though cowboy boots and tube socks seemed more than plentiful. So my mother scoured her closet, where she found – in the back, tags still on – her inspiration: A Wilma Flintstone-esque dress she had purchased but obviously never worn.
I watched my mother pull out that dress and stare admiringly at it, giggling, remembering something long ago, almost as if she had once expected to receive an invitation to a Kwanzaa party that never arrived.
The dress’ pattern was more caveman than tribesman, but it featured a stretchy fabric that fit me surprisingly well, and it showed off my maturing curves. It also had an ample dart to hold my bosom.
My mother spent days perfecting my costume. She altered the dress, which was much too long, shortening the hem, cutting it above the knee on a bias, and then removing the left shoulder strap, before cutting the top at a diagonal, so that just a hint of my large brown nipple showed.
Days later, my mother received a delivery, and, much to my surprise, had somehow managed to locate – and I do not know to this day how or from where – a rubber Ubangi mask – a partial mask, to be accurate – which fit snugly over the top of my head, over my ears, and then around my jaw, encasing the bottom of my face. When I tried on the mask, it transformed my Anglo face into that of a Ubangi warrior. I now sported an Afro, a ridged forehead, overdeveloped jaw, gigantic, dangling earlobes and a Frisbee-sized lower lip that looked as if it had been stretched with a dinner plate.
My mother gave me a pair of her old black sandals, to which she fastened dog biscuits on the tops to mimic bones. Another biscuit was intricately secured (read: glued) into my nostrils, giving me the look more of a girl with a deviated septum than that of a tribesman who was to be admired for his prowess in hunting and bedding women.
My face and body were shoe-polished black.
A rubber spear was secured to the end of our fireplace poker.
I wore my mother’s wood and chain bracelets, as well as a necklace with yet another dog biscuit tied to it.
And I carried a pillow case.
It was so … not right.
So … not politically correct.
“You look just like the photo in National Geographic!” my mother gasped when she was finished, holding me at arm’s length in her bedroom. “Say Oow-wa-boo-ga! Say it!”
And then I caught the first full glimpse of myself – that initial moment when, as a child, you are supposed to be breathless with anticipation to see yourself as a creature, or a hero, as somebody magical for one day – replaced by, well, horror.
I looked like I was ready to attend a Klan meeting.
I leaned closer into the mirror over my mother’s vanity, a bright row of naked makeup lights illuminating my transformation, and, upon closer inspection, I instead decided I looked like a midget with a fetish for Afro-centric attire.
Think Billy Barty does Pam Grier.
When I scurried down our brown shag stairs to show my father, he popped open a beer, unwrapped a mini Hershey bar sitting in the giant bowl of candy we had waiting for trick-or-treaters, and shook his head.
“Honey, why don’t you grab the camera?” my mother asked my father, following me around, picking my ’fro.
“Why don’t we pass on pictures this year?” my dad said, returning to the local paper. “The boy will thank us one day.”
That moment was, looking back, a noble gesture on my father’s part, on par with dragging my lifeless body from a frozen pond, or giving me one of his kidneys.
I went to the Halloween parade filled with a combination of horror and excitement, and was immediately bombarded with the types of questions that only kids can ask.
“Are you George … or Weezie … Jefferson?”
“Are you one of the Jackson Five?”
“Are you Dionne Warwick?”
I’m carrying a spear, have a lip the size of a toboggan, and have a bone implanted in my nose, I wanted to scream, but I knew they just saw chubby Wade in black body paint, a dress and lots of jewelry. I was also showing a hint of tit. And carrying a pillow case.
We, thankfully, didn’t have any African-American kids in our school, or I would have gotten beat down.
I marched around the playground, where a neighbor’s dog ate the bones off my sandals, and then around the gym, where each grade marched in front of the crowd, one class at a time.
When it was my class’ turn, I stood at the back of the line, and waited until the very last minute, stopping cold, separating myself from my costumed competitors, turning toward the faculty judges who were sitting at the top of the bleachers and began to scream the lines my mother had helped me rehearse:
“Hello, Americans! Do not be frightened! I am a Ubangi tribesman. The Sudan is my homeland. My giant earlobes and lip are a symbol of beauty in my country. Do you have questions about me or my homeland?”
Imagine crickets chirping, followed by mass hysteria.
I sprinted to rejoin my class, humiliated, hiking up my dress to cover my exposed breast. While waiting for the winners to be announced, I mainlined Snickers to bury my pain, discovering it was difficult to eat anything – much less tiny chocolate bars – with a lip the size of a flying saucer.
I had already given up hope of winning anything, considering the reaction I had gotten from my peers, until I heard, “Ummm … the tribal bride … umm … tribesman … second place … nice job.”
You could sense that the faculty judges were searching for words. But you could also sense that they felt compelled to give me some sort of public acknowledgement for taking a risk, for trying to educate the masses. But mostly it was a sympathy vote, as my elders wisely realized I would probably be candy-jacked and gang raped later in the evening by a group of older boys who were confused but enticed by my costume.
I don’t even remember what I won.
All I know is that it felt great to be a winner.
And I know my mom felt the same: She not only proved her mothering skills to the our town but also showcased her vast knowledge of foreign affairs and her quest for racial harmony.
Still, the next year when my mom pulled out her National Geographic ready to top her previous year’s costume, I told her Thanks, but no thanks.
I was still being called Weezie by a few classmates.
I couldn’t take that chance.
“You always need to take a chance in life,” my mom told me, nodding her head sadly. “You have to think beyond the walls that confine you, Wade; use all your imagination. That’s why God gave it to you.”
But I couldn’t.
So I played it safe.
I went as a vampire.
And didn’t win a thing.
For a very long time.