A controversial presentation on a bulletin board in the Foster Residence Center at Indiana University Bloomington was dismantled last week after students objected to it via social media. The board featured a picture of a saxophone-playing Black Santa along with the question, “Can Santa Claus Be a Black Man?” The display included additional questions like, “If Santa is a black man, would you let him come down your chimney?” and “If Santa Claus is a black man, wouldn’t he only visit the ghetto?,” with blank space underneath for students to leave responses. IU Associate Vice President of Public Affairs Mark Land said in a statement, “The aim of this was to start a discussion around racial stereotypes, and while the intent was good the execution was misguided. This program has a good record of fostering debate among students on important issues, but this effort missed the mark.”
Members of the Indiana University campus community are not the first to ask such questions. There are multiple comedy videos on YouTube built around the premise that Santa Claus could not be a black man, because the cops wouldn’t believe that a black man would break in to people’s houses to leave gifts instead of talking them, or because – as Dave Chappelle once said – Black Santa would arrive three days late. Then,there’s this modern cabaret song about why a black man would have a hard time working as St. Nick in a New Jersey mall. There are more videos and websites of a similar but offensive nature, so I can’t link to them here. A quick Google search of the phrase “Black Santa” will bring them to your attention almost immediately.
What those hackneyed videos and sites won’t tell you is that there is a history attached to the image of Santa Claus as a black man in this country, and it started in 1943 at Blumstein’s department store in Harlem. After black leaders called for a boycott, Blumstein’s became the first store to hire a black man to play Santa. In the 1950s, the Coca-Cola company sold a Black Santa doll, and in 1963, heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston appeared on the cover of Esquire as Santa Claus. Of the cover, Pete Ehrmann wrote for OnMilwaukee.com:
In the racially tense year of 1963, nobody wanted Sonny Liston coming down his chimney or even through the front door.
The menacing then-heavyweight boxing champion of the world epitomized what every white person was most afraid of encountering walking down the street alone at night, and when Liston glowered beneath a Santa Claus hat on the cover of Esquire magazine’s December issue that year, it was considered a stunning profanation of the season of Goodwill to Man and Peace on Earth.
It’s estimated that Esquire lost $750,000 due to running that cover. Ten years later, though, the song “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” was released, and throughout the 70s and 80s, Jet magazine would feature black actors – male and female – as Santa Claus on their Christmas week cover. Today, images of Black Santa adorn sweaters, ornaments and decorations, so it’s understandable why students at IU felt the now removed bulletin board display was a bit out of touch.
Here are some images of Black Santas from around the country – and even a few from other parts of the world – that prove Santa Claus not only could be a black man, he is!