A friend came over yesterday and helped me for two hours twist Tin’s afro into a new hairstyle. Tin sat patiently throughout the entire process as we twist and twist his curls into coils. We used shea butter, but next time will try beeswax as his hair didn’t naturally want to stay in those twists. Later, his godfather kiddingly said he looked like a pickaninny. A word I hadn’t heard in a long time and my friend said she could remember growing up people using it and saying things like, “He looks like a pickaninny straight off the plantation.”
Pickaninny is now considered pejorative and offensive, but Tin’s godfather didn’t mean it in that way, he meant that Tin looked like one of the little boys seen in our past through images or movies or stories.
Later, as I was wrapping his hair in a scarf for him to sleep in, I sent the image to my friend and she said, “He looks like a little Aunt Jemima.” And it made me remember when I was a child driving or walking through the French Quarter and seeing all those larger than life Aunt Jemima’s outside of the tourist shops – they used to terrify me. My friend said not terrify, they were hideous.
The image of an overweight black nanny are stereotypes from our past whether from Gone with the Wind or French Quarter outings, but they evoke different feelings in different people. My fear was in the unnaturalness of those large mannequins, while I’m sure the fear of a plantation image conjures much darker imaginings for others.
I know in the South it was a custom for people to collect those iconic images of African Americans – the lawn jockey, the boy with the fishing pole, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus, Buckwheat and on and on. They represent stereotypes of how African Americans were viewed through the lens of white people who wanted to see amiable, nonthreatening, people of color.
I have three magnets on the fridge I bought at an Ogden Museum craft show years ago, one is a black nun, a black farm worker, and a black woman carrying a load. They are characters from Clementine Hunter’s paintings. Right now, Tin and I are reading Art from The Heart, about Clementine Hunter and everytime we get to the page where Northwestern University hung Hunter’s paintings in their gallery and then didn’t allow her to see them during normal hours (read: when white people were there), it stops Tin and he asks: “How come she couldn’t see her paintings?” And then we discuss Jim Crow laws, a dark time in our history as a nation, unfairness and segregation. That Northwestern gave Hunter a doctorate degree when she was nearly 100 years old is something I do add, but only halfheartedly.
When do we begin to look at old icons, language, images with new eyes?
Aunt Jemima on the pancake box?
Rumor has it that she just up and disappeared.
Well, I know the real story
you see I ran into Aunt Jemima one day.
She told me she got tired of wearing that rag wrapped around her head.
And she got tired of making pancakes and waffles for other people to
eat while she couldn’t sit down at the table.
She told me that Lincoln emancipated the slaves
but she freed her own damn self.
The last time I saw Aunt Jemima
She was driving a Mercedes-Benz
with a bumper sticker on the back that said
“free at last, free at last,
thank God all mighty
I am free at last.”