mostly sesame street, the jackson five, the cosby show and fat albert.
i clearly recall believing as a child that uncle ben and aunt jemima were famous american chefs, and that they were married.
i also wondered if uncle ben was the cream of wheat man, or if they were in fact two different famous black american chefs. my father and i would discuss the theory over breakfast, with the red cream of wheat box next to the box of uncle ben's converted rice. my dad said that since he didn't know many black people in real life he sometimes had a hard time telling them apart. he said that he didn't know for a fact that they weren't the same man, but they might just look the same since they were both cartoons on cardboard boxes. he didn't know if uncle ben and aunt jemima were married in real life, but he thought that would be interesting to find out. why would a husband endorse a competing breakfast? he should be enjoying jemima's pancakes. despite not being sure that they were actually married, my dad based his assertion that uncle ben and the cream of wheat man were different guys on that.
ni tells me that no one else ever thought that and to the rest of the world they were little else but racist caricatures of kitchen slaves or otherwise indentured servants of white america.
i remember talking to my mother about aunt jemima and uncle ben too. i asked her if it was more common for black people to be chefs than white people, just as it was more common for non-hockey playing athletes to be black. i thought it curious that at least two famous chefs with their faces on the boxes of food would be black, when i hadn't seen any black people with cooking shows on television. my mom thought about this for a while, and said that she didn't think it was more common for black folks to be chefs. she thought that in america it was mostly white men who were chefs. she went into the cupboards and produced a can of chef boyardee beefaroni to prove that white people were chefs on boxes of food too. she didn't think that aunt jemima and uncle ben were married, she thought that auntie and uncle were used by black folks as general terms of respect, and that they did not imply familial relationships. she thought that the cream of wheat man and uncle ben were the same guy, because she didn't think it likely that there were two famous black chefs.
it didn't occur to me that uncle ben and aunt jemima might be slaves, and that their faces on the packaging might be racist. to young misslake, this was a bit of an incomprehensible conclusion.
why would anyone racist, who hated black people, want to eat food that was clearly the brilliant invention of these famous black chefs?
my mom told me that it was racist because to a lot of people, black folks belonged only in the kitchen, cooking for the whites. and the pictures on the packages represented this oppression. that in america, black people couldn't ever grow up to become chefs because of racism. that pancakes and cream of wheat were southern foods, (the americans call cream of wheat 'grits' and eat it for dinner, she explained) and it was in the south where black people had the most trouble with slavery and racism.
so much depends on the context.
to little misslake, who clearly remembers the first time she ever saw a black person in real life, concepts such as racism and slavery were hard to grasp. differences between black people and white people were non-existent because i had never been exposed to them. ignorant of the world, i thought black people (and everyone else for that metter) were just like me, lived just like me, thought just like me. i remember going to new york city at the age of nine, and harassing my mom for weeks after because i wanted to have my hair put into cornrows like all the little girls we saw there. she tried to tell me that it couldn't be done. it took several lectures and attempts at explaining the differences between black and white, and finally 2 trips to the hairdresser, the second for a special viewing of a hairdressing book with a chapter about black people's hair, before i was convinced that my hair would never look like the black girls' hair. because their wavy black hair was fundamentally different from my straight brown-black hair.
i remember reading "little black sambo" and "red fox and his canoe". it was only later when my mother was reviewing a controversial new version for her job on the school board that i realized that they too might have been racist. "little sambo and the tigers" was set in india, where there actually were tigers, and him and his mother wore traditional saris and tunics. neither of us could remember exactly the plot details, or the characters and setting in the banned original, and so could not decide if this new version was sufficiently non-racially offensive. but my mother insisted that the old sambo was definately drawn racist-ly. she could not describe why to my satisfaction, something about having big lips, but assured me that cartoons of black people were almost always racist. this later resulted in me assuming that fat albert had been racist, and feeling really uncomfortable around people who mentioned it, fearing that they were somehow being racist and fearing that i was inadvertently racist for not being able to figure out why.
i grew up with that sort of uncomfortable awareness of racism, one where i knew i didn't want to be racist, and that i wanted to keep other people from being racist, but being too far removed from it to understand it or recognize it.
seeing aunt jemima as a great chef and admiring her, never suspecting what might going through the minds of others.
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