My husband and I recently took our three children to see a live production of A Christmas Story. Attending the theater together is holiday tradition for us, and I couldn't wait to see how the popular 1983 film had been transformed into a stage musical. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten somehow that the comedy, set in 1940s Indiana, revolves around a 9-year-old's boy's desperate attempts to persuade his parents to buy him a BB gun for Christmas. As I sat in the audience that night, watching the young actor portraying Ralphie bounce all over the stage, extolling the virtues of the "Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time," I couldn't help but think about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black boy shot dead on November 22 by Cleveland police with an AirSoft BB gun in his hands. I also found myself repeatedly turning away from the action on the stage to glance down the aisle at my own 12-year-old black son.
We've never bought my son or his two sisters toy guns, and yet we've amassed a cache of Nerf blasters, rubber band rifles, water guns and more, all unwelcome gifts from friends and relatives. Of course, I could choose to confiscate incoming weapons like some parents do, but I know for most kids, pretend gun play is more about feeling powerful within themselves versus a desire to wage violence against others. Also, I well know that kids don't need toy guns in order to shoot. A few years ago, when I visited an orphanage in South India, a group of laughing, preschool-aged girls and boys surrounded me in a hallway, shouting, "Pistol! Pistol!" with their tiny hands twisted into gun shapes drawn straight at my head. The nun in charge told me they'd learned it from watching TV.
In A Christmas Story, young Ralphie's desperate desire for a gun is all about feeling powerful. He imagines the gun as a talisman that will turn him into a hero, allowing him to save his teacher and classmates from an old-fashioned villain in a black hat. Owning a gun is also a way for Ralphie feel close to his father, to join the tribe of men. A Christmas Story strikes me as a microcosm of America's romantic fascination with guns, which may be why in 2012 the National Film Registry chose to preserve the movie version for its cultural and historical significance.
Ralphie's adventures in the fictional town of Hohman echo my late father's idyllic tales of growing up in tiny Newfield, New York, in the late 1940s and early 50s, where he trudged to school in the snow, rode horses through the woods and used the rifle my grandfather gave him to shoot wildly at trees, squirrels and possibly his younger brother. My dad cherished that rifle as a symbol of an exuberant boyhood -- so much so that he hung onto it, and I got a terrible scare the day my son, at about age 7, found the rifle, unloaded, in a closet at grandpa's house. My dad shrugged off my panic at the time, for in his mind, boys and guns belonged together, with just a little light supervision needed.
Like Ralphie and almost everyone else in A Christmas Story, my father was white. My husband and I are white too. As parents by adoption, we are struggling to prepare our three kids of color to live in a racially-complex society that excludes people like them from most quintessentially American tales and instead burdens them with far uglier narratives. A black parent who gives a 12-year-old a toy gun is irresponsible. A black boy who just wants to feel powerful and waves a toy gun in the park is a threat. A black man with a gun is not a hero, but a thug.
A couple of months before Tamir Rice died with an Airsoft gun in his hand, I stopped my son and a black friend as they were headed out our back door to meet a classmate at the park, loaded down with Nerf guns.
"Guys," I said, "you can't go outside with those."
My son and his friend didn't argue with me, the way 12-year-olds usually do. Instead, both just stopped and seemed to visibly deflate. I didn't have to say anything else, because I'd reminded them of the story they can't afford to forget. Without a word, the boys put their toy guns away and walked out into the street, alone and unarmed.