Recently Quaker Oats announced the company was shuttling the Aunt Jemima name. The brand debuted in 1889. After one hundred and thirty-nine years, Quaker Oats admitted the “brands origins are based on a racial stereotype.” The original image used to represent he brand was as Black woman named Aunt Jemima, who was originally dressed as a minstrel character. A minstrel character is a fraught stereotype placed on the Negroid race and used to show the inferiority of the Negro and the superiority of other groups. This type race based casting – if you will permit me – is done by applying and exaggerating liberally: in speech and mannerism (Buckwheat), skin tone (Sambo), manner (Stephin Fetchit), dress (Aunt Jemima). Can you say pickaninny?
None of these characteristics are exclusive to any one of the stereotypical, intrinsically racists characters. I can’t possibly name all of them; including those of the years of yore; including those who continue to play to type even today. Pick any or all of the characteristics and apply. Each one can be layered readily onto the other. Happy, happy, childlike characters willing to serve – in servitude to the dominant group, the superior race -while the characters remain forever jovial, ignorant, inferior. Over and over again until the false images are ingrained and accepted as true; layered, intersected, a proverbial briar patch of racial stereotypes. A briar patch indeed, entangling, sticking and injuring each of us in different ways.
Act 1 – Life’s transition
I did what I always did, kissed Momma, moved pass her to the kitchen, to make mental notes of what additional food items were needed. “I will be back in about an hour.” I paid no mind at those other her parents spoke reverentially. The sun – I couldn’t tell you her mood – smiling, angry, mercurial. Those other tattle-tales: the wind, birds, animals; ignored them too. I came to see her face. I normally paid others no mind on these visits. In hindsight we were engaged in a common societal ritual – transitioning, the parent becoming the child, the child becoming the parent. We did not talk about this until years later – after my father was dying.
Momma called to say he was hospitalized. She assigned me the responsibility of interacting with the doctors and nurses. Her, Georgia’s, role was what it always was – the parent – telling, directing, expecting her wish to become true. I was not the Jennie in the bottle, one having to rub, rub, rub, wishing upon some damn unattainable wish. No, no, no, I was this honey brown tone woman’s child. A strong-willed, child of the South – Chester Anna’s child – who had little time nor tolerance to listen to any of her children ever possibly say what they weren’t going to do.
When she told me about transitioning, I was hesitant at first and struggled in this newly assigned role – the practice of telling my father what he had to do. I told her this, she responded much like her mother – in a matter of fact voice, repeating – “the transition has come.” Absolutely, there was an initial struggle of wills. Leon Griffin didn’t willingly pass anything. Sure, the roles ultimately reversed; this occurring quicker than life’s flight elsewhere.
Act 2 – A transition in more ways than one
Georgia didn’t complain, about this role reversal thing. She sat patiently in the distance, in an ample, light-tan leather recliner. She never asked what I was preparing, how long it would take, whether I needed anything. I worked. We talked. We, by the time I finished cooking and began the process of cleaning and setting the table, also included by oldest brother, Gregory. I was now in and out of the conversation, hearing bits and pieces; moving from the kitchen to the dining area and back. I was standing by the sink when I heard Greg tell Momma, “I’m a better father to my children than you were a father to us.”
Most times we have to keep life simple: The sun rises in the east and falls in the west; zero plus any number is the number; one plus one is two. Greg’s comments were simple and easily explainable.
I don’t know whether Marvin Gaye’s daddy had killed him at the time Greg made his feeling a bit too secure in himself statement. Anyone in the black community would have told you Marvin Gaye’s daddy shouldn’t have to suffer if the rumor mill was true. Marvin on drugs, talking to his parents any old way, until Daddy Gaye lost it, killing his son, after Gaye’s untoward comments to his mother; Daddy Gaye’s wife. Remember, we should always try to keep life simple. Make this concept as simple as one can get: No matter your age, wealth, fame, you will respect your parents, particularly your mother.
One plus two equals three, doesn’t it? Are you there yet?
Gregory’s words were the self-assured, cockiness of a youthful man, who forgot for a moment his role. Georgia was Georgia and not Leon; she was not in transition. He should have known this. Shouldn’t he? Surely, he should have known she was not the one. She was not ever going to past gently into the night.
How could he…?
Act 3: Maybe life is no more complicated than a three-act play
I moved the knife from was place to another – behind my back, cuffed and secreted, so I assumed. Georgia’s head tilted to the left, thirty degrees at most. Her eyes were not angled – one hundred and eighty degrees of parental super-vision traveled forty five feet, latched onto mine eyes – no catch if catch can – caught – compelled me to loosen my grip, forced me to immediately place the knife on the counter. No, no, this still wasn’t good enough, pushed me further, and forced me to place the knife into the sink. Not tomorrow, right now was the look.
Georgia then directed her attention to her oldest male child:
“Baby, I’m happy you’re a good father for your children…you should be.”
“There is no book on parenting which has all the right and wrong answers.”
“I did the best I could, most parents do.”
“I am glad you view yourself as a better father. I had to be both the mother and father after Leon became ill.”
She kept her voice at an even tone. Her feet remained off the floor and comfortably positioned, one leg crossed over the other. She then did the black momma thing; repositioning her body before exulting: “But personally, I am tired of men blaming every problem in the world on women…” That’s it. Said in a firm, matter-of-fact tone, telling her child she would respect his manhood, while warning him he was blurring the lines, placing blame in the wrong place, and that he was still required to respect her.
I see the resoluteness in Georgia’s eyes every time the continued existence of the minstrel show we are presented by Hollywood writers, television shows, product placement and am amazed why there is any confusion of why we remain forever angry. I also see Georgia’s eyes when I see posts on social media advising others: “We are not our parents.” I get insulted for every black mother and father, ours/their grandparents; the generations and generations of people who look like them are willingly disparaged. I see the hazel irises of my blind great grandparents, who were slaves for part of their lives. Surely, even with their blindness, they would be able to see the folly and self-hatred contained in these misplaced memes. posting these memes apparently have no knowledge of their history.
The memes are the generational mistake every generation makes; being better, smarter, faster than past generations. They are also part of the societal lie told, believing my, your, their ancestors were weak for allowing slavery to occur; for not immediately abolishing Jim Crow laws and legally enforced segregation and apartheid system which followed. The systematic murder and rape of a people never occurs in a vacuum. And, of course, these memes actually do what others have always done – blame the victim. Now dance Stepin, dance!
I muse to say that those posting these memes fail to take the long view of history. They fail to learn the history of the African continent before the continent’s plunder of knowledge, wealth and resources. They are those who have never understood history’s lessons about what their darker hue means: the original man/woman by which all other civilizations are carved. Theirs is a slanted eye view of the world, permitting them to ignore the Middle Passage and close to three hundred years of enslavement; the marshaling of a people around the world as chattel. Their parents taught them to be strong and proud. They didn’t teach them to be stupid.
These memes – told in many variations – are destructive – a continued form of self-hatred – openly calling your people cowards, stupid, lazy, a taciturn/quiet bunch. These are the same people who kept them alive, who had the courage and guile to survive in this game of life: music, dance, speech, the sciences, various faiths, the law, the arts. A people who struggled to keep families intact during slavery; who worked to retain culture, foods, and languages, in order to live for another day. They did sing “bye-and-bye” didn’t they.
Not succumbing, passing along their wisdom so their/our fool-selves could be born, but not to be fooled in believing that we are braver, smarter, more industrious than our parents and grandparents. When seeing these memes I envision the writers working for a major corporation, borrowing Buick’s sales pitch (not your dad’s Buick) and valiantly attempting to apply Madison Avenue advertising to a race of people. They passed these survival skills from generation to generation and prayed their children would come out on the other side. And we did – come out on the other side. Now, unfortunately, some of these children are confused. Instead of commending their people, they slice and dice history, never seeing the Marvin Gaye daddies looking cock-eyed at their behavior; thinking, thinking, thinking much too much about how they brought these fools into this world and how they are more than willing to take them out. Aunt Jemima imagery was not by accident.
Kahil Gibran, the Lebanese poet, was right when he intoned:
Your children are not your children.
The come through you but not from you,
They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
Gibran’s observations should never be mistaken for disrespecting the plight of a people by assuming his/her generation is braver, smarter, stronger than previous generations and would have never tolerated conditions their parents had to endure. The memes are misplaced and those posting them should learn and cherish their history. To do otherwise is fatal.