‘Santa Claus Is a Black Man’ Singer, Grown-Up

The star of the African-American Christmas classic on her father's legacy and positive black imagery.

TR: How do you pass some of your dad’s lessons on to your children?

AV: I have four children now, and I just see how important it is to be able to relate to images with regard to skin color and hair. It’s super important for you to be comfortable with what you look like and who you are. Even though things have changed over time and we see a greater variety of images … it’s still worse for people of color or black people, especially if you look a certain way. And I think my dad understood really early on about how powerful black images really are. They’re just really important. The media controls so much, and this was his effort to take some control of what we see. So, having kids now, I really appreciate him reinforcing that pride.

TR: How else do you try to honor your dad’s legacy and the message he wanted to send with the song?

AV: My dad was a genius. He really was. He was ahead of his time for sure. If you met him once, you would feel a bond with him. He mentored a lot of young people through music, sports and education. He was very well-read, and he didn’t go to college, but he was the smartest person you’ll ever meet. He touched everyone’s life who came in his path.

I actually do private tutoring, in all subjects besides foreign language, and in math up to calculus. So I feel like I have at least some of my dad in me because I touch young people’s lives. Just in terms of teaching them to read in between the lines. Even though math appears to be an objective discipline, there is a lot of subjectivity to it.

What I meant by that is, we often talk about a multicultural curriculum — how Africans and Asians have contributed to subjects at large. We don’t look for these pockets of “diversity” like that in subjects like math, but they do exist …

We discovered things, too. If you’re in school and you see all these pictures in the books, and everything that’s great is associated with white males, that does something to you. You may not realize it, but that, [combined] with all the other images we have in the media, is just a reinforcement of the idea that you don’t come from greatness. And we do come from greatness.

So I speak up about that with my students. It’s the proverbial reading between the lines. I emphasize that you shouldn’t just take what’s presented to you.

It’s what my dad was challenging with the song. It’s like, everything that’s fun and good and happy is in the white image. Everything that’s magical and special is always in these images that don’t look like us. We’ve gotta have images that look like us, too, that do great things. And it starts in childhood.

TR: Do you play the song for your children around the holidays?

AV: I do. They think it’s hilarious. Every year I have this idea that I’m going to get my daughter to remake it. But when you do something as a parent, they don’t think it’s as cool as everyone else does.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s staff writer. Follow her on Twitter. Like her on Facebook.