It’s hard not to feel at least somewhat responsible for the acts and actions of our forebears. While we may know that things they did or believed are not our “fault,” we also wonder what we carry in our DNA and how we are impacted in ways we may not be conscious of. I appreciate Mimi’s honesty in discussing her family history and her willingness to support others in their process by sharing it.
What to do with Aunt Jemima?
by Mimi Simmons, Washington State
What to do with Aunt Jemima? I’ve been asking myself this question since my mother died in 1996 and I inherited her iconic plastic syrup pitcher. As a child, I loved seeing it on our yellow kitchen table in Littleton, Colorado, whenever my mom made pancakes. I loved how the little pitcher worked, how you tipped her head back and the opening at the top of her scarf became the spout.
I didn’t think my parents were racist; we never heard either of them make a disparaging remark about African Americans or treat anyone with less than respect. Our only peek into our father’s deeper world came one night while watching TV. When Roberta, my big sister, said that Harry Belafonte was a handsome man, my father calmly sent her to her room. That confused me and shocked and irritated her. Our mom wasn’t in the room at the time and the incident was never discussed. Over time, Roberta and I began to learn that our father’s father had been a very active racist.
In high school we talked about people being prejudiced or bigoted against Blacks but I didn’t hear the term racist until I was an adult. Growing up, we had one Black family in town and, as far as most of us knew, they were treated with at least tolerance or indifference, if not with warmth. Who knows what ongoing hurts and abuse they were subject to that most of us never saw? We lived in the segregated world of white privilege and, in the 50s and 60s, much was kept secret, especially from children.
When my sister was about sixteen, she spent a summer with our paternal grandmother in the northern part of the state. I was eight and stayed home. Grandma Simmons was a force. She had divorced her husband when their four boys were quite small and raised them on her own by running, then owning, a rooming house for mostly Greek shepherds. She worked hard, played the piano, cooked and cleaned like a house afire. When we were older, my sister repeated to me a story our grandmother told her that summer when they were alone together. Years before, Grandma had come across a photo, hidden in a drawer, of Grandpa with the KKK. She hadn’t known he was in the Klan.
My electrician father and his veterinarian younger brother were good fathers. I didn’t really know their other two brothers and they all have been gone for years. We’ll never know if they knew their father was a Klansman. Or if they consciously kept his racist ideas from us, their children. Three of the cousins, children of these two men, married African Americans. If relatives were surprised or uncomfortable, one cousin said, They sent us to Sunday School all those years where we were told everyone was created equal. Didn’t they think we were paying attention?
Am I responsible for the racism in my family’s history? To the degree that I am responsible for our nation’s racism, yes, I am.
So what to do with Aunt Jemima? When I found her in my mother’s belongings, I began considering options. I thought of including her in an art piece that honors African American history. Maybe sending her to artist Nick Cave to include in his powerful work. Or another artist who uses racially sensitive objects from the past in their work to re-frame and enlighten. I thought of selling her and donating the money to an organization working toward equality but I worried she might be purchased by a racist and I wanted to prevent that. I considered having a ceremony and smashing her, then making the pieces into something commemorative but that didn’t feel right. I feel protective of her. Perhaps a museum of African American culture and history will want her.
Last month, Quaker Oats announced that the Aunt Jemima brand will be re-branded “to make progress toward racial equality”. What a perfect time to bring our little family pitcher out of the drawer where she’s been waiting and let her retire. Now, until I find a new home for her, Aunt Jemima sits on my dresser for me to see every day. It’s time to face what’s been hidden.
The story brought to mind reflections on my own childhood and family’s stories, experiences that in the light of current thinking, i.e. A Course in Miracles, there is only love or fear. I can look back and see what was chosen that contracted into fear or brought love into relationships. To see little children choose to make a new age is inspiring.
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Your story reminded me so much of my own childhood. I grew up in a rural town up north with only a few Black families. My first discussion about race came at age 6 or 7 when I went to play with some of the Black kids up the road. My dad saw me and later told me I should not go there anymore. “They weren’t our kind.” My response was something like “they are just kids like me” but he repeated the warning. My secret revenge was that my parents never knew I had dinner at my friend Pam’s house a lot and sometimes two of the Black kids were guests too because they came there to play. Pam’s mom was a lot more rebellious than even we were!
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Thank you for sharing this. May Aunt Jemima rest in peace.
One the childhood stories I was raised on was “Little Black Sambo” which went out of circulation many years ago. Thinking back, the racist message within that story was very subtle, but it was there. Blacks were underdeveloped human beings, enmeshed in a primitive culture of superstition and semi ignorance. But as a child I loved the story. I only saw it as a magical marvel to make butter and have a pancake feast! I think Sambo was sort of a hero to me.
Racism has to be taught, and unfortunately our culture has taught it from our inception as a nation. We have much to own up to, much to grieve over, much to unlearn, and so very much to learn.
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Growing up in a monoculture in a white farming community in the Midwest, I did not give much thought to Aunt Jamima as a cultural icon. The clear plastic bottle filled with delicious brown syrup was just that, syrup. Now that I am writing this, I can see the paradox.
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