Mama, who is Aunt Jemimah?

Singer, actress and vaudeville performer, Edith Wilson, as Aunt Jemima at a personal appearance for the Seattle Kiwanis club’s Pancake Festival. (photo by T.P. Chittenden, chairman, Seattle Kiwanis Pancake Festival [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

If you were asked that question, what would you answer? More importantly, what would you feel if it referred to your aunt, mother or grandmother? Embarrassment, pride or nothing? My answer is pride, because it provided a job for a model and a product promoter. Also some embarrassment because it meant your relative was a maid. In a book called, The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris, that question was posed by a young White boy on a trolley car looking at a Black woman. There was no answer, but the writer says if she was asked, she would have said, “It’s my grandmother.”

In the ‘50s, the Aunt Jemimah character provided jobs for the Norris family who went to grocery stores to demonstrate the new Aunt Jemimah pancake mix and Quaker Oats products. ‘Slave in a box’ some called it, because it was instant pancakes out of a box. It was prepared by the Black woman on the box and so came the name ‘handkerchief head.’ The Norris family turned the other cheek and walked away. That was their grandma, but it provided income for the family.

For some, this was not the life they wanted to live so they took to crime and the easy way out that led to prison and true embarrassment. Someone said one bad Negro could do more damage than years could undo.

Black writers like James Baldwin, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Chester Hines and Mark Mathabane told our stories as we turned the other cheek and moved forward. Stories of lynchings, Block Busters, NAACP, patience, post office jobs, and court victories turned the tide.

The residuals of the past are still there as reminders. While we were taking down Confederate flags, there still stands in Natchez, Mississippi, a restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard. It’s a 33-foot tall building designed to look like a giant Aunt Jemima.

Black Pasadenans had their embarrassing ‘handkerchief heads’ who turned the other cheek while they became school teachers, principals, council members, mayors and department directors. We named a park after the great Jackie Robinson; a street named after Thurgood Marshall; and created statues of Jackie Robinson and his brother Mack. However, there is still no school or street named after Jackie or Mack or any notable individual of color from Pasadena. It’s overdue and it’s getting late.

Elbie Hickambottom (the first Black on the PUSD board) is gone; George Jones (activist) is gone; Sam Sheets (attorney) is gone; Charles Johnson (civil rights attorney) is gone; Billy Williams (Black entrepreneur and businessman) is gone; Lois Richards (first Black to run for office in Pasadena) is gone; Loretta Glickman (the first Black mayor of Pasadena) is gone; Fred Valentine (Woods Valentine Mortuary) is gone; Ralph McKnight (Urban DNA Design) is gone, Ralph Riddle (Pasadena’s first Black police officer) is gone; and Rev. Rolland Jenneford (Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance) is gone.

All are gone, after their turn at bat in the game of life where we win freedom, justice and equality. The battle is not over. The next generation must step up to their turn and battle.

The stories have yet to be told about Juanita DeVaughn, the experienced Black teacher from Alabama who was told that the District had a kitchen job for her but not a teaching job. There was the realtor, Versie Mae Richardson, who is now gone. She had to pretend she sold houses to Whites in the White neighborhood and didn’t expose the truth of selling to Black families until closing day. The trials of the first Black principal, Regenia Moses, must be told. After being informed that hiring her as a principal was never going to happen, a Jewish principal took her in as his assistant and eventually slid her into the principal position. She’s now gone. They all turned the other cheek until there were no more to turn. Then their talent was exposed.

We must not forget that we were at one time all in the same boat rowing in the same direction. But somehow, we got sidetracked when one or more of us reached the goal and did not reach back to help the rest of the group. We must get back in the boat, take our turn at helping and teaching the new rowers about rowing in unity to keep us all moving forward.