Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dad and Aunt Jemima

My father died in 1967 at age 47. Over time memories tend to dissipate like the smoke from his ever-present cigarettes. I've spent the last couple of days thinking of him, reconstituting some memories.

From 1949 to 1956 Dad was a salesman for the Quaker Oats Company, which at the time also owned the brands Ken-L Ration dog food and Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. Dad's territory included all of the Intermountain states, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, a huge area but sparsely populated.

And it was also racially homogeneous. Not a lot of African-Americans lived in this area, maybe 1/10 of 1% of the population. So it was a surprise when the company hooked Dad up with a black lady who portrayed Aunt Jemima. I never learned her real name. She wore the Mammy dress and the kerchief on top, just like in the Aunt Jemima picture on the package. One day I went to my second grade class and we had a special assembly. Dad had set up a performance for us kids. Aunt Jemima sang to us. She had a clear voice, and she sang a cappella. The song I can remember her singing is, "When the red-red robin goes bob-bob-bobbin' along..."

Dad took Aunt Jemima to various functions, like the Fourth of July breakfast in a nearby park, where they made pancakes for anyone who showed up. It was always a big deal. It probably killed him to be seen with a black person. Dad was as racist as any white guy in the 1950s. Utah had hardly any black population, but it didn't make people less prejudiced. Maybe more so. Dad was as much a bigot as the times afforded, a product of that era. In the 1960s he was puzzled by the Civil Rights movement. "What do those people want?" he used to ask, rhetorically, because he didn't care what they wanted. I wish I'd had the presence of mind or enough knowledge of the situation to tell him, "They want what you want."

Dad in front of his own office, circa 1966 or 1967.

Dad died in a bad year for Civil Rights, 1967, with riots in several cities. It might have fed his bigotry, but I've always thought that had he lived another 30 years or more he would have seen that his prejudices no longer fit. His racism, like the image of Aunt Jemima in the 1950s, was no longer viable in a diverse and changing population.

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