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Remembering the Aunt Jemimas

What does Ione Brown's dynamic granddaughter, who is now a larger than life figure in journalism, think of her grandmother's legacy?
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Upon learning that award-winning journalist Michele Norris wrote a book, I initially thought it was going to be a tome about her fabulous broadcasting career where she has knocked down barriers as the first black host of National Public Radio's evening news program "All Things Considered."

However, I was startled when I flipped through her memoir, "The Grace of Silence" and stumbled upon a chapter called "Aunt Jemimas." I gasped to myself, "Oh God, don't tell me ..." Norris humbly reveals that her grandmother worked for The Quaker Oats Company as a traveling Aunt Jemima, peddling pancake mix when Jim Crow was king during the 1940s and 1950s. Ione Brown dressed the part, too. She wore a hoop skirt and tied a red bandana around her head. She even became a local celebrity in tiny Midwestern towns that she visited.

Questions burned in my gut: What does Ione Brown's dynamic granddaughter, who is now a larger than life figure in journalism, think of her grandmother's legacy? Especially in the wake of fiery protests that have been leveled against The Quaker Oats Company for decades, one of which famously reads:

WE THE UNDERSIGNED demand that this negative stereotype of Aunt Jemima that seriously hinders and degrades the image of all black American women be removed. No black woman in America is safe from the cruel and disrespectful hurt of the image and history of Aunt Jemima. Not Oprah Winfrey, not even the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, both of whom have been slandered by this epithet. This contemptuous insult is hurled at all black women no matter what their occupation, achievements or station in life.

And even though Aunt Jemima's image today is slimmed down with a fairly modern hair-do, earrings and a delicate white blouse - protesters still call for her likeness to be entirely removed from the iconic pancake box. They argue that her image is so historically polarizing that it's offensive to try and kiss and make-up.

"I want to be clear about something." Norris firmly writes. "My disbelief about my grandmother's work as a traveling Aunt Jemima has nothing to do with shame."

I turned the pages almost faster than I could read them. Norris explains to readers that the grandmother she knew was a classy and polished woman who was proud of her race. She also explains how her grandmother essentially spoke to her from the grave and seemed to be saying "Don't be ashamed for me, because I am not... I'm a public representative of my race. I try to leave them with the best impression I can ... and leave a little touch of Christianity where I go."

I applaud Norris for sharing this with the world. It would be a cheap shot to criticize Norris' grandmother for none of us walked in Ione Brown's shoes. There were very few opportunities for African-American women during the 1940s and 1950s, and most oppressed low-income blacks during that time were unable to recognize the perpetuation of racist and sexist stereotypes and the underlying damage that was being done. They were on the inside looking out. Now, we are on the outside looking in. Monday morning quarterbacking is a low-blow.

And let's not pretend that Ione Brown was alone. Whether The Quaker Oats Company paid a them a salary or not, many black women of this era were encouraged to exude a "mammy" persona while scrubbing strangers' toilets as domestics. My grandmother, Opal Wills, included. It didn't make them bad people. Nor should their descendants be ashamed. Better to remember them for doing the best they could with what they had while trapped under the ruthless heel of Jim Crow. Now, we know better and we do better. Honestly, who is anyone to judge?

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