It takes unmitigated gall to try to snatch a pacifier from the mouth of a toddler. Had my daughter been another type of child, the stranger woman at the mall may have succeeded. “That’s a shame,” she said, reaching for the pacifier. “You know you are too old for that thing.” Thankfully, my daughter is herself, so I didn’t scold her when she jerked her head, furrowed her brow, and grunted at the woman like the bully she may have thought she was. We all laughed, but I tucked the word “shame” in my bra like a pack of cigarettes that I would get to when I had the time.
One day, shame won’t be the first way we approach little Black girls.
I used to love the taste of metal and when I was very small, I swallowed a penny from my grandmother’s floor. A registered nurse, she said “Don’t worry. It’ll pass,” and returned to the ways that Victor was carrying on in The Young and the Restless. The penny passed, she cleaned it off, and somewhere tucked away in my grandmother’s house is a penny with a story that is told without shame.
But my own pacifier was another story. All the adults in my family wondered aloud when I would “let that thang go.” When my mother tells the story, it is thick with shame about the tears I cried over the pacifier she was cajoled into throwing away. The whole house was miserable for days, the story goes, and then I found my thumb—something no one could take away. “Look at that cookie mouth,” my mother says, pointing to pictures of me laughing and leaning on my father, my entire top row of teeth an oval.
My other shameful tendency was chewing my own tongue. It is still my habit, when I’m working or concentrating, to gnaw on the thick of my tongue. Mrs. Mossenburger, my sixth grade teacher, told me that if I didn’t stop chewing on my own tongue, I would get cancer. I didn’t stop, I didn’t get cancer, but my father did and now he’s dead.
After the coroner takes away the body of someone you love, it is custom to spend months stuffing food into your mouth. Shame at the way your flesh spills over old clothes is supposed to quiet the grief, which sits in your throat waiting to curl into a scream. I bite my lip now when I’m walking in public, infuriated that the world has the nerve to go on.
So I am the least qualified to police oral fixations. I have lived long enough to know that there are comforts more dangerous than an orthodontic pacifier. My daughter’s habit is both pediatrician and Mommy approved and if another mother[rusher] says so much as a word to me about what she should be doing, I won’t be able to bite my lip.
But a pack of cigarettes has four sides; there may be another way to remember this moment. Perhaps the stranger’s shame was a false front and I missed the wink between them that made my daughter giggle in conspiration. Perhaps she was acknowledging that a tall girl with a pacifier is proof that a child has tussled with an adult and won, whether by reason or protest. Whichever tool my daughter had used, she’d found a way to get what she wanted in this place that delights in holding things just beyond the reach of Black girl hands. Maybe the woman’s pretend attempt at theft was a reminder that we have to fight harder to keep the things we aren’t supposed to have– our pacifiers, our lives, our sanity, our children.
Her pretend shame was like the way we groaned, “Ooh, she grown!” when, after a denial of juice, my friend’s eighteen month-old daughter rolled her eyes and toddled away on bowed, unsteady legs. We burst into proud laughter, understanding what it could mean when little Black girls protest in ways that inconvenience adults. They are teaching themselves about power and its many locations. They know that what looks like an absolute (pacifiers are for babies) can be massaged into a compromise. They are learning the soothing power of a deserved eye roll, the necessity of retreat. Maybe a prohibited pacifier, an eye roll, and a dramatic (if unsteady) exit are just kernels that will expand into the Black girl/ woman magic, often misread as gall, of joy snatched from the mouth of despair, freedom from the mouth of constraint.