Aunt Jemima was a mythical figure of my childhood imbued with some of the best traits of humanity

Louise McEwanIn 2010, journalist Michele Norris began leaving postcards everywhere she went. She asked people to write six words that expressed their thoughts on race and mail the card back to her.

She has received over 500,000 responses.

In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Norris talks about the Race Card Project, its impact, and its potential role in advancing the moral trajectory of American society.

With this as background, I offer my six words on race.

I thought for a long time before coming up with my six words. Nothing seemed quite right, until breakfast one morning while eating pancakes.

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Aunt Jemima

Photo by Nong

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My husband and I were discussing the merits of the crepe pan to cook the pancakes. The batter doesn’t stick to the crepe pan. Unfortunately, the pan is smallish, so the pancakes are smaller.

I suggested to my husband, who makes the pancakes (ironically, superb cook that I am, I cannot make pancakes from a mix), that he could make the pancakes the size of a crepe. We began to picture a larger pancake garnished with fresh berries, a dollop of Greek yogurt, and a splash of maple syrup. It would make a great photo to send to the Pearl Milling Company.

Eureka, I had my six words.

“I still call it Aunt Jemima.”

Like most words, my six words are open to misinterpretation. So, let me explain why I have settled on those six words.

In my mind, Aunt Jemima did not represent the oppression of slavery. She was a mythical figure of my childhood imbued with some of the best traits of humanity. Her image on the box was reassuring. It bespoke affection and warmth, love and nurture.

Perhaps I liked the pancakes because I loved her. Even though I grew up in an ordinary family, where the only nanny I had ever heard of was named Mary Poppins, I could imagine living with Aunt Jemima, and being enveloped in that ample, loving bosom.

So, I had mixed feelings when Aunt Jemima disappeared, even though I understood the rationale. But, I still felt sad when her image was wiped out and her name was erased, the familiar box replaced with some nondescript packaging I have trouble spotting on the grocery shelf.

Growing up in a small town in the interior of BC, my experience with ethnicity or race was limited.

It was news to me to hear my parents talk about racism against Italians. My father had immigrated from northern Italy in the early ‘50s at the age of 19. One-third of the population of our town was Italian. I had no idea that some people in our town referred to Italians by the derogatory term “WOPS”, meaning ‘without papers”, a term no less insulting than “illegal aliens”.

It was even more shocking to me to learn that some people wouldn’t host black teenagers in their homes. My older sisters belonged to the Up With People Movement, an international movement of young people who formed choirs and travelled to spread a message of peace and acceptance of diversity.

A choir from Washington State was coming to put on a show with the local choir. Choir members needed billeting. Given this was the mid-’60s with unabashed racism and civil unrest in the U.S., it wasn’t surprising that the organizer felt the need to ask people if they would be willing to billet black kids.

My mother took that question and turned it into a teachable moment. Of course, we would. People are people; skin colour is irrelevant. I was so proud of her for standing up against racism.

Learning about the Race Card Project prompted a deep dive into my own attitudes about race. I have biases of which I am aware. I probably have even more that are unconscious.

For my six words, I settled on a phrase that helps me to remember that every individual has an innate dignity and deserves love.

A cynic might point out that Aunt Jemima was a super successful advertising campaign that I fell for hook, line and sinker. Maybe.

But I still call it Aunt Jemima.

Louise McEwan has degrees in English Literature and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.

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