When I was about eight years old, the grocery store that was across the street from my home had a promotional visitor in the store. The visitor was a black woman portraying Aunt Jemima and the store was making pancakes to be given away to customers. Of course, you had to use Aunt Jemima’s syrup on your pancakes. I entered the store and was transfixed by this display.
I should note that I lived in a small town. We had no black, Latino, or Jewish people living there, so a black woman handing out pancakes and syrup was an ‘event’ that spurred interest. In my home town, difference was often reduced to being either Catholic or Protestant, and that difference was stark and fraught with tension. I can recall summer league softball games between the Catholic and the Protestant team would inspire harsh yelling and insults by the fans directed at the players from both teams.
The visit by Aunt Jemima did not fully register with me at the time. I was not able to recognize her as a stereotype, nor understand how her presence was reinforcing my attitudes towards her and towards black people. I would not grapple with these feelings until much later in my life – specifically when I left home to attend college, where I met and came to know African and black students for the first time, and then later, when I joined the Navy and was sent to Eritrea where I became a minority white guy in a majority African nation. Many of the lessons I learned in college and in the Navy were the foundation of my exploration of race. There would be many lessons to come that would expand on that understanding, and today, I continue to be both a student and a learner about the issue of racial dynamics and where I fit into that ongoing exchange.
The company that produces Aunt Jemima syrup has recently dropped the picture of the fictional Aunt Jemima and replaced it with the name of the company – Pearl Milling Company, which you can see in the attached picture.
This story is connected to Doctor Seuss in my thinking. Recently six of the Seuss books have been removed from publication because of racial and ethnic pictures and language that are derogatory. The estate of Theodor Geisel, which is made up of Geisel’s relatives, is the group that removed these books. That is noteworthy because Representative Kevin McCarthy (a noted Trump apologist and supreme bootlicker) has stood up on the House floor and said that Democrats were outlawing Doctor Seuss. This is just another one of McCarthy’s lies in a string of lies that he tells. I should note that it seems that Geisel was aware of his faults. Later in his life he wrote a book called “Horton Hears a Who!” which he dedicated to a Japanese friend and is often seen as his apology for previous mistakes. He also wrote a book called “The Sneetches”, which is seen as an anti-discrimination text. Both of these present the possibility that people do evolve and change.
The Aunt Jemima and Doctor Seuss stories are examples of something that has come to be known as ‘cancel culture’. It can be defined as a form of censorship – those who are subject to ostracism are thereby ‘cancelled’, but for me, cancel culture has become a weapon of conservative politicians and commentators on TV and radio. Keven McCarthy is a prime example of cancel culture used as a weapon. He looks to blame Democrats, ignores the fact that the Geisel family estate is responsible for not publishing six Doctor Seuss books, and proceeds to attempt to make it political and score points with the nut job Trump base. A base that is not known to spend a lot of time dealing with facts.
I would contend that Aunt Jemima and Doctor Seuss are not being cancelled, that rather these events are a step in our society’s evolution. We, as a people, are growing more diverse and as that happens our recognition of what is fair and decent is also changing. These changes are necessary if we are to heed the words of John Lewis in these two comments:
“get in good trouble…and help redeem the soul of America.”
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to do something.”
Dear readers, it is my hope that you will begin to, or in some cases, continue to re-examine what it is that you see that may be not right or not just and that you will speak up and do something.