This is Charlie Nelms, a Black Baby Boomer from the Delta Region of Arkansas—an area dominated by large cotton plantations and defined by big mosquitoes, abject poverty and racism of the ugliest kind. We lived a mile Southeast of the Buck Lake Road in a little four-room shack without electricity or running water. Although the road didn’t have a name back then, we gave people directions to our house by telling them, “You need to turn on the dirt road directly in front of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.” Our nearest neighbors to the North were the Simmons and the Calloways who lived in little shotgun houses, while Miss Jane, a single Black woman farmer lived a mile to the South in a nice three bedroom white bungalow. I remember her as a kind-hearted woman whose generosity occasionally included loaning my parents a few dollars to buy food, kerosene to keep our lamps burning and to giving my mother boxes of clothes for us children that her sister, who lived in Chicago and who did housekeeping work for wealthy white women, sent her every year. Although most of the clothes were too small for a chubby kid like me, I was delighted to get a nice pair of socks or warm coat every now and then.
Santa, for many years I debated the wisdom of sharing with you the rejection and pain caused by your refusal to acknowledge receipt of my letter on the one hand and your failure to bring me any of the items on my gift list, on the other. Mama and Papa told us we had to be good if we wanted you to bring us the clothes and toys we’d written to you about. It seemed that no matter how obedient or “good” we’d been, you never stopped at our house! For years I attributed your failure to show up to the fact that you couldn’t find our house. Later, of course, I discovered the real truth. My parents were too poor to afford any of the stuff we spent hours upon hours looking at in those colorful and thick catalogs from Sears Roebuck, J C Penney and Spiegel. Mostly, what my siblings and I wanted were clothes so we wouldn’t have to wear hand-me-downs, clothes with patches all over them or those poorly constructed and bought at the used clothing store. Interestingly, some of the most stylish and expensive clothes on the market today are denim jeans with holes, faded colors and ill-fitting! Although you never made it to my house, you should know that my list always included something for Mama and Papa. My only non-clothing item on the list was a red bicycle from the Western Auto Store in West Memphis or Earle, Arkansas.
When my wife and I became parents nearly 40 years ago we discussed what we’d tell our son about Christmas, Santa Claus and gift-giving. As Christians we felt compelled to discuss our faith with him and the importance of believing in a power, force and source---by whatever name---that was greater than himself. As for what to say about gift-giving at Christmas, we chose to make it clear that we—and not you—were responsible for bringing him the gifts on his wish list. We taught him the importance of not waiting until Christmas to give someone a gift or incurring a lot of debt in the process of doing so. Additionally, we impressed upon him the importance of sharing gifts of new toys, clothes, books and games with children whose parents can’t afford to grant their wishes. Each year for as long as I can remember, our son and I have shopped for kids we didn’t know or have written checks to charities that support children and battered women. When he was a child, I’d have him print the name of the organization on the check and I would sign it.
Santa, the pain and rejection that I experienced at Christmastime in the Arkansas Delta left a gaping hole in my soul. Each year that pain becomes a little less pronounced as my wife and I invest throughout the year in causes that improve the lives of those who come from low-wealth backgrounds like ours. In 2017, our gift list included support to more than a dozen organizations serving children, teens and mature adults alike. While we give our gifts without any expectation of acknowledgement from the recipients, I must say it’s heart warming when we receive thank-you notes from strangers whose prayers were answered or whose wish was granted. In 2017 our gifts enriched the lives of thousand of individuals at the local, state, national and international levels. A partial includes:
- Alzheimer's Foundation
- Appalachian Service Project
- Back Pack Buddies, Bloomington, IN
- Banneker Center After School Programs, Bloomington, IN
- Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington, IN
- Community Foundation of Greater Flint (Kids impacted by Flint water crisis)
- Hoosier Hills Food Bank, Bloomington, IN
- Indiana University Foundation—scholarships
- Metro Community Foundation, Flint, MI
- Mission Possible of Memphis, TN
- Stone Belt Developmental Services, Bloomington, IN
- Union Valley Outreach Programs, Wynne, AR
- University of Michigan Flint—scholarships
- University of Arkansas Pine Bluff—scholarships
- United Negro College Fund—scholarships & emergency student support
- United Nations World Food Program
- Voorhees College
- Wheeler Mission, Bloomington, IN
Santa, the only gift that yields greater joy than the gifts my wife and I give throughout the year is the gift of education given to us by our parents, teachers and anonymous donors many years ago. While the pain of your not finding my house all those years ago will never completely disappear, the joy of being a Black Santa with a gray beard and bald head in 2017 is incredible!