Aunt Jemima

Lately, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup has been making the news. Quaker Oats, which now owns the brand, says it will retire the Aunt Jemima name, as it reminds customers of slavery and racism. This brand of pancakes was first sold way back in 1890, with the image of Nancy Green on its container. Ms. Green was indeed born into slavery, but was a free woman by the time her face graced the boxes of pancake mix on grocery shelves. She served pancakes to folks at the 1893 Worlds’ Columbian Exposition, and people loved her warm, friendly personality. She won an award for showmanship, and remained a spokesman for the company until her death in a car accident in 1923.

Continue reading “Aunt Jemima”

All God’s Children – by Thomas Eidson (1997)

All God's Children

The story is set in the 1890s, in the little town of Zella, Kansas. The main character is Pearl, a devout Quaker widow raising five children on a farm just outside town. To a add to her troubles, Pearl is also blind. When a black man running from a lynch mob takes refuge in her home, she shelters him. Later in the story, she also gives refuge to a Japanese family that was driven out of town by prejudiced folks.

There are bad guys throughout the book who are constantly trying to harm either the black man or the asian family. Pearl and her family suffer because of their association with them. As Quakers, they are dedicated to avoiding violence of any kind. They are so extreme in their views that they will not even defend themselves when they are being beat up. This made the story seem unrealistic to me, but perhaps Quakers are really that fanatical about pacifism. I have not had the pleasure of meeting any of them.

Basically, the “good guys” in the story seemed ridiculously good, to the point of allowing themselves to be run over, and the “bad guys” were bad to the bone and seemed to have nothing to do other than attack people of other races. Overall, I don’t think this book was worth my time.

Lunch-Box Dream – by Tony Abbott (2011)

Lunch-Box Dream

The retro feel of this book cover caught my eye, and the description sounded like a good story with some substance to it. It is set in 1959, just when the Civil Rights movement was simmering. The book jumps back and forth between two families, one black and one white, each with their own unique problems. Bobby is the main character. In addition to his parents having marital problems, he and his brother Ricky can’t stand each other. Bobby and his brother and mother are on a three-day road trip, driving their grandmother back to Florida. Along the way, they stop at Civil War battlefields because Ricky is obsessed with history, especially the Civil War. Ricky and Bobby are always arguing and fighting with each other. In contrast, the black family is tight-knit and loving. Their struggles come from outside the family – racism and prejudice when they are out in public. Their 10-year-old son Jacob goes missing and they are hysterical with fear that Jacob has been kidnapped or killed.

The story had such great promise, but just seemed to fizzle out. I thought at some point the two families would meet, that Bobby and Jacob would be talking to each other, that there would be some sort of conclusion that we all struggle with the same things regardless of our skin color. But the families actually never interacted with each other, making the story seem disjointed. Also, there was just too much bickering and fighting and angry words in Bobby’s car. Too much negativity in a story can kill it, and I think it  ruined this story. This is a book I should have passed on.

Burro Genius – by Victor Villaseñor (2004)

Burro Genius

This is a masterful book in which the author describes his life as a young boy growing up in Oceanside, California with his parents. His father was a man with a fiery temper and a reputation of being a gangster, but also with an undying loyalty to his family and his heritage. His mother was beautiful and loving, and always teaching her children about Jesus and the saints. His father bought a ranch when Victor was very young, and that is where the book takes place.

Victor thought going to school would be fun when he started kindergarten. Instead, the first thing he learned in school was that he was considered inferior and stupid because of his Mexican ancestry.  Both the teacher and the other students made life miserable for him. He was teased, bullied, slapped around and beaten up, and no one seemed to care. To make matters worse, he was having a terrible time learning the alphabet and simple words.

Things were just as bad when he got to first grade, second grade, and third grade. He was forced to endure the humiliation of repeating third grade because he still was unable to read. His parents tried several different schools, but it was the same wherever he went. No reading, but a lot of bullying. It was not until Victor was an adult with children of his own that he was diagnosed with the most severe form of dyslexia.

It was hard to read of such blatant racism and prejudice. I wanted to ask what on earth was wrong with those teachers and principals, that they tolerated the abuse Victor was suffering. No child should ever have to go through what Victor went through. There was a fair amount of anger and swearing in this book, but it would have been difficult to give an accurate portrayal of Victor’s family life without the language.  There were also tender moments, when Victor’s father shared some very profound thoughts about forgiveness. Although it was a rough story with raw emotion, it was a camera into the soul of a person who has battled the devil of prejudice and racism, and won.

 

The Angels Of Morgan Hill – by Donna VanLiere (2006)

angels-of-morgan-hill

In the mid-1940s, Morgan Hill is a tiny, quiet town where nothing much every happens. Then one day, a black family moves in. Some neighbors extend a welcoming hand and heart, while others plot ways of making the family move out. A unique friendship develops between Fran Gable, a widowed mother of two, and Addy Turner.

When a tragedy strikes and Addy is dying, Fran promises she will raise young Milo. Her children, Jane and John, love Milo and consider him a little brother. But money is tight, and prejudice is running high. Fran begins to wonder if maybe it would be less traumatic to Milo if she allowed him to be adopted by a black family.

This is an interesting read that tackles the subjects of true friendship, bi-racial adoption, and conflicted feelings within the family. How important is it to look like the rest of your family? Does it even matter? This thoughtful little book can easily be read in a couple evenings.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – by Mohsin Hamid (2007)

reluctant-fundamentalist

 

The story is told in one long monologue. A young Pakistani man, Changez, strikes up a conversation with a traveling American man at a cafe in Lahore. It’s actually a one-way conversation, as it appears that the American barely speaks a word during the evening. Changez is tormented in his mind, and needs to pour out his thoughts to someone. He ends up telling his entire life story to the stranger in the cafe.

Although born in Pakistan, Changez manages to make his dreams come true by being admitted to Princeton University in the U.S., and later being hired by a prestigious company. He absolutely loves life in New York City, and falls in love with an American woman, Erica. He considers himself almost American. Then comes the terrorist attack on the twin towers. Suddenly he is looked upon with suspicion and distrust because of his nationality.

The book shows well the inner turmoil of a person who experiences life in the United States, and then has to return to his homeland. Changez has tasted the goodness of the American culture, then has to deal with the bitter hatred coming from the same group of people. The irony is, of course, that he begins to resent and hate them too. Prejudice and racism turn into a vicious circle that just goes on and on, and always ends as a sad story.

Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 1

blacklikemebook-xlarge

(This is a re-print of one of my favorite book reviews)

An old proverb says you cannot understand a man until you have walked in his shoes. In 1959, John Griffin decided to do just that. Born in Texas in 1920, he went to France as a young man, and studied both literature and medicine. He also interned at the Asylum of Tours, using experimental music therapy on the criminally insane patients. During his stay there, World War II broke out. John used his medic skills to treat wounded French Resistance fighters, and helped move Austrian Jews out of France. When it became too dangerous, John returned to the United States.

From there he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Pacific for about three years. A bombing attack damaged his vision, and by 1946 he was totally blind. In his years of blindness he experience a spiritual revival, and became a devout Catholic. He also wrote a number of stories, using his trusty typewriter. In 1953 he married Elizabeth Holland, and together they had four children. A few years later, his eyesight was restored, and John developed skill as a photographer.

By 1959, racial tensions between the whites and the Negroes were at an all-time high. This bothered John greatly, as Negroes had been treated as equals in France. He devised a plan to “become” a Negro for a month or so, then write his impressions of what it was like to be a black person in the southern states. A dermatologist gave him prescription medication to darken his skin. Skin creams and hours under a sun lamp intensified the effects. John also shaved his head so that his hair would not give him away. And so he “became” a black man, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. The things he experienced changed the course of his life.

Excerpts from page 54-55 of 35th anniversary edition:

With almost an hour before bus departure, I turned away and looked for a place to sit. The large, handsome room was almost empty. No other Negro was there, and I dared not take a seat unless I saw some other Negro also seated.

Once again a “hate stare” drew my attention like a magnet. It came from a middle-aged, heavy-set, well-dressed man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light….

A Negro porter sidled over to me. I glimpsed his white coat and turned to him. His glance met mine and communicated the sorrow, the understanding. “Where am I supposed to go?” I asked him.

He touched my arm in that mute and reassuring way of men who share a moment of crisis. “Go outside and around the corner of the building. You’ll find the room.”

The white man continued to stare, his mouth twisted with loathing as he turned his head to watch me move away.

In the colored waiting room, which was not labeled as such, but rather as COLORED CAFE, presumably because of interstate regulations, I took the last empty seat. The room was crowded with glum faces, faces dead to all enthusiasm, faces of people waiting.

Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry – by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Roll Of Thunder Hear My Cry

This classic book is about a black family living in Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression. There’s Big Ma (the grandmother), David Paul and Mary (the parents) and their children – Stacey (12), Cassie (9), Christopher-John (7), and Little Man (6). Not far into the story, Uncle Hammer joins them, as well as an unemployed man named Mr. Morrison The Logan family owns a 200-acre farm, which was purchased after the Civil War from a northern carpetbagger. The white family that used to own the land wants it back, and will go to great lengths to get what they want.

The story is told by Cassie, the only daughter of David and Mary. Through her eyes you see the tightness of the family , as well as the harassment and prejudice that they experience from the white community. However, there are several whites who are portrayed in a positive light – Jeremy Simms, a classmate that does not share his family’s racial prejudices, and Mr. Jamison, a lawyer who supports the boycott against the local grocery store.

I greatly enjoyed reading this book. The conversations between Cassie and her three brothers were very authentic, and sounded like any other siblings’ squabbles. But my favorite part of the book had to be when her brother Stacey came up with a plan to get back at the bus driver who was always humiliating them. I also found Jeremy’s relationship with the Logan kids interesting. He was trying so hard to be their friend, but there just wasn’t any way to have a bi-racial friendship work for them.

You should be able to find this book in just about any public library or school media center. It is also available as an audiobook, with an excellent narrator. I listened to her smooth voice read the story perfectly as I drove to and from work. It was hard to turn off the CD player and get out of the car. When I reached the end of the story, I found myself wanting to hear more stories about the Logan family. And indeed, there are more stories! Stop at your local library and check out one the books written about the Logans:

Song Of The Trees (1975)
Roll Of Thunder Hear My Cry (1976)
Let The Circle Be Unbroken (1981)
The Friendship (1987)
Mississippi Bridge (1987)
The Road To Memphis (1992)
The Well (1995)
The Land (2001)

Song Of The Trees – by Mildred D. Taylor (1975)

Song Of The Trees

Eight-year-old Cassie Logan loved the family trees. At a time when money was scarce and her daddy was away working for the railroad, the trees were a comfort to her. Some were ancient, some were young, but they all seemed to sing to Cassie with their leaves, telling her things would be alright. But one day, when she and her brothers were out picking blackberries, they spied two white men marking x’s on their trees. Who would stop them from cutting down the family trees?

 

 

This is Mildred Taylor’s first book about the Logans, a family living in Mississippi during the 1930’s. The book is short – only 52 pages in the copy I read. “Song Of The Trees” is a good introduction to the life of a black family after slavery ended but before the Civil Rights Movement Yes, they were technically free, but in practicality they were often treated harshly and unjustly by the white people in their community.

Although Cassie Logan is a fictional character, the story itself is based on a true event from the life of Mildred Taylor’s father. After this book, the author went on to write seven more books about the Logan family, some short, some hundreds of pages long. The events were inspired by stories handed down through the generations by older family members. People of almost any age will be deeply moved by the stories portrayed in these books.

Having Our Say – by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth (1993)

w204

This exceptional biography is the story of two sisters – Sadie and Bessie Delany – whose lives spanned more than a hundred years. The sisters were born in the late 1800’s to a father who was a former slave, and a mother who was light enough to have passed for caucasian. Eventually the sisters had eight siblings. Despite the struggles that were common to African-Americans, Sadie and Bessie worked hard and had very successful lives. Sadie, the older sister, was a school teacher in New York City, and Bessie became a dentist. Neither one married, instead devoting their lives to their careers and each other.

This is not your usual biography. It’s not a dry, chronological account of where they were and what they did there. Instead of trying to cover every aspect of their lives, they focus on just the things that they felt passionately about – their family history, getting educated, the oppression of Negro citizens, being working women, helping those around them, and the Civil Rights Movement. The books sounds as if they orally recorded their memories, then transcribed it into print. Bessie and Sadie alternated telling their story, with an occasion summary section written by Amy Hearth. By the end of the book, I was wanting to hear more Sadie and Bessie stories, and that is how a great biography should end!

Here are some clips from the book, in their words:

Excerpt from page 117-118 (Sadie speaking):

I got my first teaching job in New York in the fall of 1920. I think I was paid $1,500 for the year. It was at P.S. 119 in Harlem, which was an elementary school, mostly colored. This was a typical assignment for a colored teacher. They most certainly did not want us in schools where the children were white. The parents would object. One way that the principles kept us out was to say they could not hire anyone with a Southern accent because it would be damaging to the children. Well, most of us colored teachers at the time had Southern accents. So it was just a way of keeping us out.

When my Southern accent was considered a problem, I found a way around that. I signed up with a speech coach – a woman in Manhattan. She was a white woman, a lovely woman. I don’t think she had too many colored clients. I remember that when I would go to her apartment for the lessons, the doorman made me take the freight elevator. I didn’t make a fuss because I wanted those speech lessons.

You had to decide: Am I going to change the world, or am I going to change me? Or maybe change the world a little bit, just by changing me? If I can get ahead, doesn’t that help my people?

Excerpt from page 124 (Bessie speaking):

There were so very few women dentists at all, never mind colored women dentists. Why, I was only the second Negro woman licensed to practice in New York. I was also only the second Negro woman to get a dental license in North Caroline. (I got my license there, think I might go back someday.)

It was bad enough to be discriminated against by white people because I was colored. But then, my own people would discriminate against me because I was a woman! Two times I remember that men patients of mine insisted that Hap come and pull their teeth. I remember one man said to me, “Can you pull teeth with those little hands?” and I said, “Do you really want to find out?” It made me mad. I could take those forceps and pull just as hard as any man. That sexism was a nasty thing to deal with. But once a person had been my patient, they’d always come back. The word got out: That colored woman dentist has a gentle touch.