Black Santa ad provokes controversy at Farmington mall
Farmington ― As Westfarms Mall prepares to welcome Santa Claus this Friday, some locals are questioning the intent of an advertisement to meet St. Nick.
The Westfarms ad for holiday photos presents two Santas for the Christmas season. Black Santa will be available for pictures Nov. 15-16 and Dec. 14-15. White Santa will be available on all other days from Nov. 10 to Dec. 24.
When activist and advocate Kamora Herrington saw the sign depicting the Santas side by side and their respective dates, she snapped a photo and posted it on Facebook. What ensued was a firestorm of comments as folks debated the reason behind the disparity in days and the potential consequences of the advertisement.
While some said the transparent ad helps families who may be seeking out Black Santa this holiday, others said the information could enable those who want to avoid Black Santa entirely.
Herrington, the founder of Kamora’s Cultural Corner in Hartford, called the ad “a dog whistle to racists.”
“You just told every racist in the state of Connecticut, ‘Don’t go to Westfarms mall Nov. 15-16 or Dec. 14-15 because that’s when they’re doing their ‘woke’ thing,’” Herrington said.
When asked about the controversy, Westfarms said that they were not aware of any criticism.
Herrington said this was the first time she had seen a sign advertising different Santas.
For a job that requires multiple Santas throughout the season, Herrington said the advertisement is not intended to showcase the different actors but to show their race.
Herrington said that if the race of a Santa is important to someone in 2023, they should “have to do some legwork to practice that.”
Westfarms Spokesperson Amanda Sirica said Black Santa debuted at the mall during the 2022 holiday season with “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from the community.
“We feel strongly that our customers should be able to see themselves in the celebration of the season,” Sirica said. “We are not aware of any type of large-scale criticism of the program. We believe the support for Santa, and the smiles we saw, far outweigh the dissenting voices.”
Herrington said that she hopes Westfarms will listen to the critiques and take them into account as they move forward.
“As people step into equity, people are going to get it wrong. People are going to get it skewed. People are gonna screw up just a little bit, and that needs to happen for us to get to another place,” Herrington said. “Westfarms got it wrong. And I really hope that they don’t become defensive. I really hope that they don’t just throw their arms up … But I hope that they really look at the actual critiques and figure out how to address it.”
In 2016, Black Santa made headlines when the nation’s largest mall, the Mall of America, hired Larry Jefferson as their first-ever Black Santa.
But Herrington emphasized that the tradition is longstanding.
“Black Santa has been around forever,” Herrington said. “My oldest stepsister is 66 now and there’s a picture of her sitting on Black Santa’s lap when she was 3. So there’s nothing new about Black Santa.”
For Herrington, Santa Clause is an “idea,” a “spirit.”
“There’s such beauty and a fantasy of someone loving you so much that they just show up and give you gifts,” she said. “That’s something every child should have.”
In 2019 Herrington hosted a “Santa With Soul” party at Kamora’s Cultural Corner. A Hartford social worker and community organizer played the role of Santa.
That year, Santa didn’t have a long beard or white hair, but he had a great laugh and a good heart.
“There’s a magic that I need Santa to have that transcends race,” Kamora said. “Santa is a wonderful fantasy. Santa is a beautiful myth and I believe that myths tell the story of who we are as a culture.”
Ivelisse Correa of Black Lives Matter 860 agreed that it’s disappointing that society still views Black Santa as a “revolutionary thing,” but she has a different take on the local controversy.
“Here’s the thing, a whole bunch of Black families want to take pictures with Black Santa,” Correa said.
Rather than seeing the advertisement as a way to avoid Black Santa, Correa sees the advertisement as an invitation to families to visit Westfarms and partake in the joy of meeting Black Santa.
“I want my children to take a picture with a Santa that looks like them and looks like their dad, and I get the privilege of doing that this year and so do a lot of other kids,” Correa said. “My focus is making sure Black Santa is available for Black children. I don’t care who doesn’t take the picture with him.”
Correa said she feels some of the recent attention is misguided. Instead of focusing on the advertisement, Correa said people’s main concern should be the fact that opportunities to meet Black Santa are limited for Black kids.
Correa said the Black community has a right to feel hurt that Black Santa is only available for 4 out of the 45 days that Santa will be at Westfarms Mall.
While four days with Santa this season is an upgrade from just one weekend last year, Correa said it’s “disappointing” to call the progress an “improvement.”
On behalf of Westfarms, Sirica said that the limited schedule is a result of staffing shortages.
“Our partner that produces the event — Cherry Hill Programs — has had challenges with recruiting Santa in this post-covid era so that has created limitations not just for us, but for the many other malls they work with,” Sirica said. “We hope as we continue to leave the pandemic behind, Cherry Hill Programs will have more success with finding talent and we will be able to add even more dates and times in the coming years.”
Correa said she hopes the attention around this issue will bring about full-time employment for Black Santa next year, adding that having two Santas each day would be a great thing.
She said that at this moment, not enough people are asking Black Santa how he feels.
“He’s a representation for something he didn’t grow up with,” Correa said. “That’s something that (for) a lot of Black children, you see figurines, but you never see Black Santa and that’s a very important role that he’s playing right now.”
“My kids’ father, he got excited about Black Santa like a little kid,” Correa added. “You have no idea how exciting the representation is.”
In Connecticut, opportunities for families to meet Black Santa are few and far between.
Patricia Kelly, the founder and CEO of Ebony Horsewomen, Inc., said her nonprofit’s Winter Wonderland is “probably” the only annual Black Santa event in the state.
Since 2017, EHI’s Equestrian and Therapeutic Center in Hartford’s North End has opened its doors to children for free meet and greets and present giveaways with Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their array of four-hooved elves.
Kelly said it is important that these cultural events are built by and for people of color, something that she said brings vibrancy and pride to the community. She said that in the face of “incredible amounts of institutional racism,” it’s also critically important that Black and brown children can partake in representation.
When kids see Black Santa, Kelly said they see their families and, more importantly, they see themselves.
“(It) helps to really strengthen their idea of identity, that I belong, I’m a part of. I’m not just a tack-on or, or add-on — I matter,” Kelly said.
This year’s Winter Wonderland will take place on Saturday, Dec. 16.
As always, Kelly will be there as Mrs. Claus.
“When they see me, it represents family. It represents a union. It represents the mother piece of the culture. Black and brown people are very heavy with family and the mother and father instituted into that family structure,” Kelly said. “Santa gets the top billing and that’s good. But Mrs. Santa gets to do her mothering thing. ‘How’s school? How are you doing at school? Are you cleaning your room? Are you giving your mom a hard time?’”
“It’s great for me because I get to be ‘Mom’ again,” Kelly added. “It’s really pleasing to me and I think it’s very satisfying and soothing to (the kids) as well.”
The Winter Wonderland also helps to promote Kwanza and set the stage for Black History Month in February, Kelly explained.
In the years to come, Kelly said she is hopeful more Black Santa events catch on as “people see that it helps kids to have a greater sense of identity about themselves.
“That whole representation piece is really important,” she said.
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