Jacob Lawrence, "Masks," 1954
Jacob Lawrence, Masks (1954)
Can a Game Be Literature?

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September 27, 2002:

Why's she unable to say my name?

1962. Thin young woman with died-black hair in that Jackie Kennedy early '60s flip. Speaking earnestly to a child of about five, fidgeting on a cheap metal-and-vinyl kitchenette chair. Vibrant red cowboy hat, blue jeans, plastic six-guns on each hip.

"People in the country treat children differently than you're used to. They say, 'children are to be seen, not heard'. That means you won't be able to tell them, 'I want to do this', or 'I want to eat that'. The grownups'll decide for you." Soft voice: this is important to her, it's something she wants badly. "Sweetheart: understand?"

He doesn't. He's a smart kid, but he has no experience to compare this request to. It seems to him that all people always say, "I want to do this," or "I want to eat that," and it doesn't matter how old they are. Grownups just the same. How does being a child enter into it?

She tries another angle. "While we're there, I want you to pretend you're somebody else. I want you to be quiet. Never talk unless you're spoken to. Hold still. Be patient. Don't ask for things. Be the best little boy they ever saw. It's just two weeks. Just until we're home."

He doesn't understand this either. He needs to be somebody else? What's it mean to be somebody you're not? Why's it wrong to be who he is?

In my early forties I tried as delicately as possible to change that. "Could you please not call me those names? 'Sweetheart', 'honey': all those patronizing terms. They hurt my feelings. I'll be grateful if you'll use my real name instead."

She thought about it for some while. We were in the car. I thought, this is good, she's thinking it over. When she was ready to reply she said, "How about, 'babe'?"

The two weeks never end. He refuses to role-play a different identity. She's unable to stop insisting. They grow apart. He learns to hide the things that are important to him, to protect them from damage. She stops using his name.

It continues to this day. He refuses to relinquish his sense of self, for instance he won't go to costume parties. She carries a locket with his picture at five, before his identity became an issue. If ever she talks about him it's about how cute he was in his red cowboy hat and six-guns.


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