Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, March 2, 2022


 "Santa Claus Is a White Man:  A Story of the Color Line" by Jon Henrik Clarke (first published in Opportunity:  A Journal of Negro Life, December 1939; reprinted in American Christmas Stories, edited by Connie Willis [The Library of America Collection, 2021])

Since Christmas has past and Black History Month is over, I put my procrastination aside and read this short and somewhat savage story.  It focuses on Randolph, "the happiest little colored boy in all Louisiana."  His mother, a servant in a large house, has just given him a shiny quarter to do his Christmas shopping at the ten-cent store -- he was told to 'get somethin' for Daddy and somethin' for Baby and somethin' for Aunt Lil.  And something for Mummy too, if any money's left."  Randolph was delighted; this was the fist time in his life that he had held a quarter.  In his head, he was dividing the money -- five cents each on Daddy, Baby, and Aunt Lil, and a whole ten cents on Mummy.  

Ah, but this was Louisiana in the not that distant past...

On the way he spotted a group of white boys stealing apples from an outdoor fruit stand.  The boys scattered when caught by the proprietor.  Randolph wisely moved to the other side of the road but it was too late -- the boys had spotted him.  Before he could flee, the boys had surrounded him, pushing him back every time he tried to move on.  The leader of the gang, a red-headed bully, told Randolph that he had no business here:  "[W]e don't allow niggers in this neighborhood."  Randolph stammered that he was just going to the ten-cent store to do some Christmas shopping.  He looked down the street where he had just passed a white Santa Claus who was ringing a bell; perhaps he could be rescued by that man.

The red-headed boy was a slow thinker but eventually he got there.  If this boy was going to do some Christmas shopping, the  he must have money on him.  As Randolph pushed his hand deep into his pocket he clutched the precious quarter tightly.  Then it happened, the white Santa Claus had noticed the boys and was coming his way.  The man waved the boys aside and demanded to know Randolph's name.  When Randolph answered, the Santa Claus mocked him, "Randolph!  Dat's no name for er niggah!  No niggah's got no business with er nice name like dat!"  By this time Randolph was crying and begged to be let go.  This angered the Santa Claus who ordered Randolph to stop crying or he'll send him to Saint Peter.  The he thought for a second, changed his mind, saying, "Don't think Saint Peter would have anything t' do with a nigger."

All this had excited the small crowd of boys.  One yelled out, "Let's lynch 'im."  The others quickly and enthusiastically agreed.  The red-headed boy "gleefully" shouted, "I'll get a rope!" and ran off on that mission.  The Santa Claus noticed that Randolph's hand was tightly clenched in his pocket.  He seized the boy's hand and opened it, seeing the shiny quarter.  "Niggehs ain't got no  business wit' money whilst white folks is starving," he said.  "I'll jes keep this quarter for myself," placing the quarter in a pocket of his red suit.

By now a crowd of interested white folks had assembled around the white Santa, the gang of boys, and Randolph.  The white Santa peered at Randolph and, with no pity but a sense of irksomeness, said that they really shouldn't lynch the boy; he was too small and it was too hot -- his body would rot and make the whole neighborhood smell bad.  As it was, Randolph "ain't ripe enough to be lynched.  Let's let him live a while...maybe we'll get 'im later."  By then the red-headed boy had returned with a rope.  Disappointed, he raised his rand to strike Randolph but the Santa Claus stopped him and handed him the quarter.  The  boy held up the quarter to the crowd and shouted, "Sure there's a Santa Claus!"  the crowd laughed.

Randolph took advantage of the moment and managed to squeak his way through the crowd running as fast as he could.  The red-headed boy threw a rock at him but missed.  Randolph kept running until he was near his home.  He was now among people he knew.  His tears had dried.  People looked at him and said, "Hello."  He would have to tell his mother what had happened.  Surely she would understand.  But what would -- could -- she say about that awful Santa Claus?

This short and effective story was told with subdued rage, with no subtleties.  From our twenty-first century viewpoint, it is hard to consider the tale being told otherwise.  The author (1915-1998) was born John Henry Clark to an Alabama share cropper and a washer woman.  His other, who died when the boy was about seven years old, wanted him to become a farmer.  Instead, he hopped a freight train to New York City, where changed the form of his name and began a life of writing and activism.

Clarke was an autodidact and never graduated from high school.  Yet he went to have a distinguished career in academia. where he became a professor of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, founding that department.  He was also the Carter G. Woodson Distinguished Visiting Professor of African History at Cornell.  He co-founded the African Heritage Studies Association and the Black Caucus of the African Studies Association.  He was a founding member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and the Afro-American Scholars Council.  Clarke co-founded the magazine Harlem Quarterly (1949-1951), was book review editor of Negro History Bulletin (1948-1952), associate editor of Freedomways, and a feature writer for the Pittsburg Courier.  He was heavily involved in the Black Panther movement in the late Sixties and railed against the systematic and racist suppression and distortion of African history by many traditional scholars.  He felt that the Greek philosophers took much of their thinking from contacts with Africans.

Eventually Clarke earned a bachelor's degree in 1992 and a doctorate in 1994 from a non-accredited school.

I read this story in Connie Willis's magnificent anthology American Christmas Stories, a diverse collection of 59 tales that I heartily recommend.


  1. Christmas always seems a bit bizarre when it isn't December.

  2. And when beheld in the light of such Xian charity as limned in the story!

  3. I need to order Connie Willis's AMERICAN CHRISTMAS STORIES! Excellent review!

  4. I have that book, American Christmas Stories, and have only read one story so far, saving them for next Christmas. But maybe I will go ahead and read this one.