Betty and Banana: raising very different kids

“I had a nightmare about princesses,” A, my six-year old son recently told me. He had a look of haunted exhaustion on his face, like if he heard one more word about princesses he might just give up on life completely.

A prefers monsters. Like the character Hagrid from Harry Potter, he finds the most ferocious creatures to the be the most worthy of his love. The more fangs, or claws, or poison sacs, or dragon wings, or spiky dinosaur ridges, or lava-spewing pustules the better. Lately, he’s had a particular affinity for the two-foot tall white-furred ferocious yeti that he received on his birthday. That day, he spent hours letting the yeti defeat each one of his super hero toys in turn, then the heroes returned for more rounds in greater numbers, yet the yeti stood triumphant in the end.

I recently came across a video of A when he was three. In it, he looks at the camera with his bright blue eyes while he lovingly pets the spiky back of a green T-Rex.

“His name is Terminus,” he says when I ask him. “He eats mommy snakes, baby snakes, and one spider.” When I ask him if Terminus has any friends, he tells me, “No. He ate all his friends.”

Terminus lined the toy shelf for years next to A’s other favorites, with names varying from Apples Juice to Ocean to Shrug. He always chose names out of the blue, but the names always stuck. But it wasn’t just dinosaurs, it was tigers, rhinos, trolls, ogres, snakes, dragons, and man-animal mutated hybrids of any kind. They soared and swooped through the house unendingly, A always perfecting their roars.

Yet A had nightmares of princesses. I read between the lines, hearing him say that he had nightmares of girl toys and girl things, anything less than roaring and horrid beasts that devoured anything before them. To him, princesses were sweet and pink and they sang songs and wanted to kiss boys, all terrible things that, to him, were much more frightening than a monster.

Yet A’s older brother, J, age 8, prefers princesses. Even as a baby, he reached for toys that would be considered more nurturing, like baby dolls, soft rabbits, and cute mice. More recently, he’s had a slight obsession with horses, and girls who ride them shooting arrows. He’s always been thrilled at the small and innocent being able to be the most powerful of all, saving the world against impossible odds and perhaps falling in love along the way.

Several months before, I had purchased him a collection of child versions of the Disney Princess toys, and, in order to make the set something the boys would play together, we endowed each princess with her own super power, so they could band together to form the Princess Patrol and fight evil. Belle was the leader and was super smart, Cinderella could make boys fall in love with her, Pocahontas was a natural hunter and tracker, Mulan knew kung-fu, Snow White could control animals, and Ariel was a super fast swimmer. There were 11 of them in all, and the boys took them on a myriad of adventures before the princesses, like every other toy for children these days, ended up on the bottom of the toy box because a new toy was receiving all of the attention.

My sons are being raised by a gay dad and a straight mom in two households, and we are a united front when it comes to parenting. Rather than enforcing any sort of gender or cultural norms, we have always let our sons just be themselves. We encourage kindness, fair play, honesty, teamwork, sharing, and listening, but we have never tried to change their interests. And for years now, their styles of play have melded together seamlessly, monsters fighting alongside princesses, instead of against each other. Just the other day, the giant yeti was helping to protect the little girl’s horse farm they had set up in the backyard, and all helped in the attacks against them. (I often play the villains).

Lately, I’ve been encouraging creative thinking and teamwork skills between my sons while embracing their individual play styles. I sat them before me, telling them they were going on an epic quest.

“You will be the Mystical Monkeys,” I told them. “Please select your names.”

J, excitedly wringing his hands, couldn’t pick one. “I, um, oh gosh, I don’t–um, I choose, um–”

“Speed it along, son.”

“Okay, I’m Betty!”

“And I’m Banana!” A followed.

And so the adventures of Betty and Banana, the Mystical Monkeys, began. They were each given one super power, passive powers I chose to encourage thinking. Betty was granted the power to change the color of anything, and Banana to turn invisible for a few seconds at a time. They retrieved a magic coconut from a treetop after fighting off an army of tarantulas (though A called them “try-ranch-ulas”) before swimming across a sea full of kissing mermaids. After a series of quests, Betty could then grow rabbit ears to jump high, and A developed a fire fist and a rock fist. They braved the Valley of the Stone Trolls, unscrambled the words to a magic spell, and entered a cave to answer riddles from a witch.

As they fell asleep, I contemplated their intersecting worlds. Dinosaurs and bunnies, super heroes and little girls, poisonous snakes and brave ponies. Betty and Banana. Their three baskets of toys overflowed, signs that they are well-loved and a bit spoiled, with both vampires and fairy queens, yet they both slept, breathing the same air heavily.

Every parent wants to give their child what they didn’t have. For me, that means raising my sons with a strong sense of identity, asking nothing more from them than to be exactly who they are and to know that they are loved.

Man in a monkey cage

The sign read:

The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga.”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September

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On September 8, 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York City added a new exhibit, a small coffee-skinned African man named Ota Benga. Placed with the monkeys, the man had an open cage to sleep in. Delighted visitors came by the thousands, the tens of thousands, bringing their friends and children to see the African man. Many of the spectators believed him to be some sub-species of man, somewhere on the evolutionary scale between monkeys and human children. And the spectators didn’t just want to see the man, they wanted him to perform. They wanted to see him hunt, play with the orangutan, dance and climb trees. If he hid, they threw rocks against his cage to draw him out. If he sat, they yelled racial slurs and insults to spark him into action, something their children could clap over and tell their friends about later. “Dance, monkey, dance,” they seemed to yell as an adult man sat behind bars, listening to their unfamiliar foreign words, yet their intent all too easy to understand.

Word spread quickly, throughout the country and then internationally: the Americans had an African man on exhibit with monkeys. New York had been a free state long before the Civil War, seeing African American citizens as deserving of equality and equal rights. And now, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, a man was in a cage.

It took them time to figure out what had happened, and language barriers, direct lies, poor record-keeping, and time have kept many of the details hidden.

The man who came to be known as Ota Benga grew up in the Congo, then under Belgian rule. Under harsh sanctions from the Belgian people, the Congolese tribes were exploited and forced into labor. Samuel Verner, who had served as a Christian missionary in the Congo previously, and who had also spent time in a mental institution, was sent to the Congo to acquire willing men to be brought to America to be put on display at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Benga was among them.

A bizarre series of events led to Benga being placed in the Museum of Natural History before he was placed on exhibit at the zoo, exploited and stared at.

Verner told story after story, each contradicting the others, in an effort to make himself sound heroic. He told how he had rescued Benga from slave traders, how Benga trusted only him, how Benga had asked to come to America and be placed on display. Yet in truth, Verner was a swindler and a liar. Not only had he fathered children with women while he was in Africa, he had racked up debts and exploited money. And Benga was not the first Congolese boy he had brought to the United States.

I learned about Benga only recently, when I chose a book about him at random off of a shelf. I read ravenously, devouring the words and images of this story that I had never heard before, these forgotten horrific moments of American history.

How could this have possibly happened, I wondered, in a country that is founded on Christian principles, equality of all men, and dignity of each person. And then I recalled the very founding of our country, a mix of declaring liberty from foreign powers while asserting our foreign power over the Native Americans with violence and blood; a mixture of welcoming foreigners, while building the country on the backs of foreign slaves.

The violent opposition of it all makes my head spin. We who consider ourselves the great democracy, founded on the principles of free speech and choice and religion, the greatest country in the world with equality and opportunity for all, priding ourselves on the American dream, yet we have entire presidential campaigns running on premises of refuting gay marriage, opposing women’s health care options, restricting immigration by building walls, and banning religious groups.

Ota Benga was a small man, but he was not a child nor did he have limited intellect. He had filed his teeth to fine points not because he was a cannibal or a savage, but because that was a custom among his tribe, a rite of passage for men. He communed with the monkeys in the exhibit not because he considered himself one of them, but because they were his only solace and support as the white Americans jeered.

After Benga was released from the zoo, he was taken in by an educated group of black Americans who gave him companionship and work and taught him the language. Benga lived among these citizens, whose ancestors had been forced from their homes to be slaves, belonging and yet not belonging; they had history in America, he was a refugee. It is believed Benga had lost a wife and children in the Congo, a result of cruel white men, before coming to America. He lived in relative isolation here for years, using an American-ized version of his name, Otto Bingo.

Until, in 1916, Benga found a gun and shot himself through the heart, a poetically tragic end to his story.

As I finish this story, and reflect, I’m left to wonder how we, as an evolving society of Americans… how much have we really changed?

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