It’s amazing what twisting paths spiders can lead us on if we let them. Several months ago I started checking out the biographies of the women captured with Louise in a 1935 Chicago Defender photo with the headline “They Are Back In Harlem,” announcing the return of the women to the U.S. following months of appearing in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds revue in London. In addition to Louise, the photo includes bandleader/instrumentalist Valaida Snow, dancer Bessie Dudley, and singers DeLloyd McKay and Edith Wilson. They each had interesting lives and careers, and garnered more press attention than Louise. While Valaida Snow is documented in books, articles, scholarly talks, photos, and film footage, I chose to zero in on Edith Wilson. (Wilson’s papers are housed at the Chicago Public Library.)
Wilson (1896-1981) was, like so many Black women who took to the stage, a master of self-invention. She was a blues and jazz singer, vaudeville performer, recording artist, movie and television actress (e.g. she played Kingfish’s mother-in-law in the television comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy), a USO performer during WWII, and an executive secretary of the Negro Actors Guild.
One of her self-inventions was as the character Aunt Jemima for the Quaker Oats Company from around 1948 to 1966. Wilson, as Aunt J, represented the company on television and radio, and in-person at civic, charity, and service club events nationally.
Beginning in the 1950s the NAACP and other civil rights organizations campaigned persistently against racial stereotyping of African American lifestyle and culture, and Aunt Jemima was a prime target for those protests. Finally, in 2021, sparked by the “racial reckoning” ignited by Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, portrayals of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Rastus of the Cream of Wheat box, and other mytho-representations of Black complacency and acceptance of exploitation were retired from the marketing campaigns of national food companies.
According to a January 2021 essay by writer/scholar Ladee Hubbard, Aunt Jemima, a character with roots in black-faced minstrelsy, became a tool of consumerism at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, as did Rastus, the Cream of Wheat man. Hubbard states:
World Fairs were conceptualized as a chance to, among other things, introduce the public to new technology, ideas and products specifically associated with the rise of global capitalism….Aunt Jemima pancake mix was presented at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, where the character was performed by an African American woman named Nancy Greene….Caricatures of Black people, recalling their association with slavery, appeared on a number of new products, presenting them not as people, but ‘things’ that did the work for you…as ‘slaves in a box’…but these slaves were no longer the exclusive preserve of a white elite; through the beneficence of global capitalism, the privileges of ownership were now being made available to the mass of consumers….Products marketed in this manner were meant to elevate the status of the (assumed white) consumer by positioning their purchasing power as an exercise not only in class privilege, but racial privilege as well.
Hubbard’s comments about the role of Black caricatures in American companies’ campaign for global consumerism brought to mind a personal encounter I had in the early 1980s with how far America’s racist portrayals of Black people extend globally. Very soon after China opened to the West, I was traveling there among a group of legal services lawyers when I saw on local television an ad for “Darkie Toothpaste.” As I recall, it was a product manufactured by a U.S. company (possibly Colgate), and the icon for the product looked like he could have been Uncle Ben’s brother, but with more exaggerated features. The ad started out with an Asian woman looking glum and bedraggled. Then she brushed her teeth with “Darkie”, and suddenly she was racing across a beach with a beatific smile, her hair and clothing wafting in the wind. The toothpaste tube filled the screen, with the image of a grinning Black man gazing out at viewers. I had to have a tube of “Darkie.” In all the cities we went to—-Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou—-I headed to pharmacies looking for the product. In some places, the shopkeepers seemed genuinely mystified by my request, either because they could not understand my phrasebook Chinese or they had no idea that such a product existed. And there were times when I saw recognition and discomfort in the eyes of shopkeepers, but they would deny carrying the toothpaste. (This was a time when few people in China had seen a Black person. When I went to a department store in Tianjin, a white colleague said it was like “Moses parting the Red Sea” as Chinese shoppers drew back and stared in amazement and curiosity. When I went to the Great Wall, I could glimpse Chinese tourists angling to capture me in the background or foreground of their photos of family and landscape. In a meeting with a group of Tianjin lawyers, one Chinese lawyer started to quote me by saying “the brown woman said… .”) Finally, I was able to purchase a tube, and brought it home. If only I could figure out which box it’s stored in …
Another interesting biographical nugget about Edith Wilson is that she performed and recorded the song “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue”. https://sonichits.com/video/Edith_Wilson/(What_Did_I_Do_To_Be_So)_Black_and_Blue%3F She was the first to perform the song, written by African American composer Fats Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf, for the 1929 African American Broadway revue Hot Chocolates. When Wilson performed it, she sang these lyrics:
Out in the street, shufflin' feet Couples passin' two by two While here am I, left high and dry Black, and 'cause I'm black I'm blue Browns and yellers, all have fellers Gentlemen prefer them light Wish I could fade, can't make the grade Nothing but dark days in sight Cold, empty bed, springs hard as lead Pains in my head, feel like old Ned What did I do to be so black and blue? No joys for me, no company Even the mouse ran from my house All my life through I've been so black and blue I'm white inside, it don't help my case 'Cause I can't hide, what is on my face, oh! I'm so forlorn, life's just a thorn My heart is torn, why was I born? What did I do to be so black and blue?
These lyrics channel the prevalence of colorism that I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. Later, Louis Armstrong dropped most of the original lyrics and sang what spoke generally to the condition of Black people and the scourge of racism:
Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead Feel like old Ned, wished I was dead What did I do to be so black and blue? Even the mouse ran from my house They laugh at you, and scorn you too What did I do to be so black and blue? I'm white inside, but that don't help my case 'Cause I can't hide what is in my face How would it end? Ain't got a friend My only sin is in my skin What did I do to be so black and blue?
Armstrong stripped out the comic elements to express the pain and bitterness Blacks felt.
I was quite familiar with the song from Armstrong’s rendition and from the several times I saw it performed in the smash Broadway musical of 1989 and 1990s, Black and Blue. But I had no inkling of this history—that it only became a poignant expression of Black angst after Armstrong deleted comic elements referencing Black prejudice against darker skin. Stories of resistance are embedded where we least expect.
Copyright 2022 by Germaine Ingram. All rights reserved.