Blew My Mind

Odds are that you have seen the photo already so I will come right to the point:

Why, pray tell, did the ladies of the Monticello Women’s Club find it necessary to inform readers that one of the recipes in the Monticello Hostess was submitted by a “colored” woman?

This just totally blew my mind… like, WTH?

A quick glance through the entire book found no other recipes submitted by “colored” women. I did not go page by page, but the lack of others sparked my curiosity.  Who was Erma Barnes? How did she manage to get her cake recipe in a book compiled by, what must have been in 1951 apartheid Mississippi, an uppity white women’s club?

Perhaps they weren’t so uppity… I think of my grandmother and her sister Ethel, sliding memories of visiting Mississippi during the Jim Crow era interlaced with scenes from The Help, set in Jackson, 1963.  Some ladies may have had airs, but odds are that most were just ordinary everyday southern white women. I also noticed that most contributors submitted recipes under their husband’s names… Mrs. His Name instead of her own; suppose some were married to a Mr. Big Shot, but the whole thing slightly suggests that contributor’s names were printed in ways to include social status… married, unmarried, colored.

So why would the wording in an old cookbook, when it clearly just reflects the era in which it was written, totally blow my mind?

Oh honey, it’s not just a cookbook… we jest between sisters that our mama raised us on the Monticello Hostess. As a most referenced book, it ranked second only to the Holy Bible. She plum wore it out, so she replaced her tattered book with her mother’s copy after grandma died.

That’s the thing… people don’t generally give those books up… they get passed down. I know because I searched eBay repeatedly and placed ads on Craigslist to no avail. Then about a year ago, my sister Jai found an article about the book being reprinted, so we each ordered our own copy. It is the exact duplicate of the original second edition, with the old ads and all. (If you want a copy, follow that link to order your own.) To most folks, it is just an old cookbook. The sentimental attachment to it has more to do with family than it does to the wonderful assortment of old recipes.

Should I tell you about my mother?

Everything is so entwined. Mama was born in Monticello, Mississippi, in July of 1941, just two years before the first edition was published. That was the same year Pearl Harbor was bombed. I don’t know exactly when her parents divorced… all I know is her daddy lived in Louisiana and he went off to war and her mother was not able to care for her properly. She tried, but she was just a teenager struggling to make ends meet, so she was doing things like leaving mama in a playpen beside the road while she worked in the fields. Strangers would stop to tend the baby, give mama a bottle or move her playpen back into the shade. There was a court hearing about it and custody was awarded to grandma’s older sister Ethel, who was married and had a “colored” nanny to take care of mama.

Oh yeah, watching “The Help” was like whoa… was mama’s family like some of those white women?

I remember mama’s nanny, she diapered all of us on visits to the south in the early 1960’s.  When I was little, I thought she was Aunt Ethel’s best friend who lived in her own little cabin on the farm. She was somehow related to us, although she was the only one who ever told us… or rather, she showed us by pointing out who was who and how everyone was related to each other in her old photographs.

Mama’s nanny had taken me and my sister Jai to her cabin to look at photo books after Jai had caused quite a ruckus in the house. We were supposed to be sitting still and being very quiet out in the entrance hall because our great-grandmother was in the front room on her death-bed, softly moaning and groaning while she was about to breathe her last, when Jai asked who the man was in the portrait of a confederate soldier. The house was so quiet that the ancient old lady, with the snow-white hair and wrinkly pale skin, heard Jai’s whisper and shocked everyone. She broke the hushed reverence of her own death watch by loudly declaring, “That man’s name is not to be mentioned in this house.”

I wish I could remember how we were related, but I wasn’t even in school yet when she took us to her cabin. Not knowing raises hard questions… was she a descendent of slaves? Did one of my great-greats rape one of her great-greats? My memories are sketchy, I don’t even remember her name; or, if I even knew her name. Nanny and Aunt Ethel acted more like family, like old friends talking and laughing at the kitchen table. I cannot recall anything that would suggest some kind of employee/employer relationship.

Nanny died of old age in 1968 or 69… so she was old enough, she could have been the nanny for grandma and Aunt Ethel, too. My only memory of her passing is overhearing someone saying that she had lived long enough to diaper all five of mama’s babies, as if that was something to be proud of, a life achievement of some kind… now it hits me as being an odd tribute.

There are so many questions that will never have answers. The only one left to ask is my mother, but even she might not know because the women in her family tend to have selective amnesia about anything they don’t want to talk about. They took secrets to the grave. Even if mama knew some of the answers, she might not say.

To roll back to mama and make a long story short… when mama was 3 years old, her mother met and married a soldier from Ohio, so she “kidnapped” mama from Aunt Ethel’s house and headed north. Eventually, grandma was awarded custody so mama was actually raised in Ohio, yet somehow managed to hold onto her southern roots. The second edition of the Monticello Hostess was printed when mama was 10 years old, so odds are that she was gifted a copy for her hope chest when grandma and aunt Ethel purchased theirs. She married my father at age of 16 and Lord willing, they will celebrate their 60th Wedding Anniversary in 2018.

Racism is taught. It is passed down like cookbooks.

My mother was taught to be politely racist… she is kind and respectful to all people, would even deny being racist, but her separatist beliefs boiled to the surface when life simmered to the fire.  And it’s not just black and white. She had issues when my sister dated an Irish Catholic, told me that I could quit seeing an Italian boy or forget I had a family, and whispered “we have enough in our family, don’t be bringing any more in” just a couple of years ago, when she found out that I was seeing the vet.

I don’t know which amuses me most… that she tells me such things in my 50’s or that her “enough in our family” includes my grandchildren. I laugh because it is bizarre. I laugh because I am done fighting with my mother. She will come around eventually… if not, oh well.

That’s the problem with her girls… we all do as we please, regardless of what she has to say. Oh, we never argue with her, never raise a voice to mama or anything. Even if we have to take a stand against her, we do so politely and respectfully. That’s daddy’s influence. While mama was raising us to be prim and proper little ladies, daddy was encouraging us to become strong independent women, to stand up for what is right.

I hate to say it, but some of mama’s ideas are just flat-out wrong.  Like when she told me that I should have nothing more to do with my only child and “not accept” biracial children as my grandchildren. We were in a cold war for years over that… it was like she sawed off my branch of the family tree and I was holding on like an irritating bit of bark, so sure her heart would soften once we laid a babe in her arms. But, it wasn’t to be… she refused to meet my granddaughter.

So, I let go… when I let go, I let go of the tree and relocated to Youngstown just to be near my branch.

I had to let go… otherwise, it would have turned me into a bitter woman, seeing her dote on my youngest sister’s grandchildren in family photos shared on Facebook: the loving great-grandma running to hospitals to greet new babies, smiling at birthday parties, attending school functions, and what-not.  She was invited to my grandchildren’s events, alerted of births, etc., but there was always an excuse, some reason why she couldn’t come. She didn’t even meet my youngest grandson until he was 3 years old.

OH WELL, HER LOSS… kids can’t mourn what they don’t know.  She’s softened a bit in the last year or so… my grandchildren now know who she is (grandma’s mother), but they do not know her… there is no relationship, no emotional attachments.


Racism is taught. It is passed down like cookbooks.

Thankfully, we had daddy to counter that, too. He taught us in words and showed us, by setting good examples, to stand up to injustices. Still, I can’t help but wonder… how much of that polite racism did mama pass on to me? I literally grew up with this book… seeing my own last name in print should have caught my eye years ago. Why didn’t I notice “Erma Barnes (Colored)” before?  Was I blinded by inherited racism?

I think it is good to question yourself once in a while… to clean house, so to speak, if necessary. We all have preconceived notions and bits of stereotypes hidden like dust in the corners of our minds. That’s not just a white thing or even a race thing… we all have dust bunnies hiding under something up there. The important thing is to keep an open mind, to shake off assumptions and preconceived ideas, to be willing to dispel any myths if or when they surface.

Thanks for reading.



Black & White

“I’m not black,” said DJ, age ye 11. “I’m Indian, Puerto Rican, white, and black.”

I’m not white. I am low Irish, dirty Dutch, Johnny Bull, and a squelch of Welsh. And that’s just on my father’s side, and worded as my grandmother told me.

The child is right. Cultural diversity cannot be summed up into one word based on general assumptions, predominant features, skin tones, accents, or language. White this, black that, anyone who speaks Spanish must be from Mexico… but that is what racial profiling does.

True, culture and race are not the same thing. I learned that on my first Thanksgiving away from home. Those white people ate some really weird food, traditional holiday fare for their heritage, which was completely different than what is traditional in mine.

Just saying we need to be more open minded, to stop trying to fence people into tidy little check boxes.  Life is not monotone. Take this color photograph, snapped in downtown Youngstown by DJ last summer. At first glance, it looks like a black and white image. It’s not.

Photo credit: DJ 2014

Photo credit: DJ 2014