Between the ages of three and five, I hovered close to my mother when she did the
laundry, watching intently as she poured the Oxydol into the measuring cup. It twinkled
with green, orange, and blue crystals. The powder reminded me of the parti-color cakemix
that the neighbors used for their kids‘ birthday cakes. From the T.V. commercials I
habitually memorized, I knew that Oxydol’s „color bleach crystals“ were especially
formulated to give you the „whitest wash ever.“ This frustrated me, because I wanted my
clothes to emerge from the washer spangled with Oxydol rainbows. It seemed wasteful to
have those beautiful gem-like hues vanish without a trace, and unjust that the crystals not
only added no color but actually took color away.

My mother’s family was ruled by the iron hand of my grandmother, a humorless
and vehemently sexophobic woman, in all likelihood psychotic, whose random acts of
cruelty were excused, or whitened out as „Godfearing“ parental guidance.

Similarly, my
mother’s actions, however bizarre, were „whitened out“ — if not through appeals to her
piety, then simply by silent consensus. This is most vividly illustrated in the reception and
transmission of one of my mother’s memories of my infancy, part of the folklore of me.

When I was a baby I would not go to sleep without something to hold. Because I
constantly played with boxes of detergent, my mother put me to bed every night with a box
of Oxydol.Since she was out of Oxydol one evening, my mother substituted a box of
chocolate cake mix. The next morning I was covered head to toe in the mix, looking, in my
mother’s words, „just like a little colored baby.“ She realized then that I had opened the
cake mix because it smelled good to me. She concluded that she should only give me harsh
smelling boxes such as detergent to prevent similar mishaps.

As I grew older, my
amazement and horror grew with each retelling of this story. No one listening to the story
(the immediate family or relatives) ever wondered why, if the baby „needed something“ to
hold, he was not given a teddy bear or stuffed animal, rather than a box of detergent;
neither my mother at the time of the incident nor any of her listeners ever inferred that if I
could open a box of cakemix, I could also have opened a box of Oxydol, which might have
injured or killed me.

A memory of my own that indirectly supports my mother’s Oxydol story also
indicates my resistant adaptations of the images imposed on me.

For several of the years I
was in grammar school, every late January I bought a box of hard-powder candy Valentine
Hearts, as multicolored as the Oxydol crystals, but emblazoned on each piece a phrase such
as „Be My Valentine“, or „O You Kid“. The box itself also pictured the hearts and their
messages. After finishing or throwing out the candy, I kept the box in my pillow case,
hiding it when my mother did the laundry, keeping it there several weeks until it finally fell
apart. It helped me to sleep to know there was something against my ear that said „I love

From „Oxydol Poisoning&quot

Earl Jackson, Jr.

University of California, Santa Cruz

Full Text found in: Names We Call Home: Autobiography in Racial Identity. Editors Becky W. Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi. (New York: Routledge, 1995).