SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When Quaker Oats announced this week that it is retiring Aunt Jemima as a brand image, realizing it's racist after 130 years, Michele Norris had a unique and complicated reaction. She knew Aunt Jemima. Michelle is a former colleague here at NPR, of course. She hosted All Things Considered for many years and is now a columnist for The Washington Post. Thanks so much for joining us.
MICHELE NORRIS: Scott, it is lovely to be with you.
SIMON: Could you tell us about the Aunt Jemima you knew?
NORRIS: Well, several years ago, I learned long after she died that my grandmother Ione Brown (ph) worked as a traveling Aunt Jemima. And your listeners upon hearing this will maybe scratch their heads and say, what does that mean? Well, what it means is there was an army of women, Black women who traveled the United States in the '40s and '50s doing pancake demonstrations at county fairs and rotary breakfasts and - all throughout the country to try to promote pancake mix, which was new at the time. Convenience cooking was new.
SIMON: Tell us what you learned about how she kind of subverted and created her own Aunt Jemima on the road when she was performing.
NORRIS: The woman that's on the package today looks quite modern. She looks like she might be on a local church council. She replaced the old image in 1989 when they got an upgrade. And the old image of Aunt Jemima looked like a mammy, looked like a slave woman. She had a durag on her hair. And in the advertising, she spoke with broken English, a kind of a slave patois, to suggest that she did not have education.
And what I learned is that when my grandmother did this work and that many of the other women who did this work - that they were not allowed to wear street clothing - they may have wanted to show up and dress quite nicely for these pancake demonstrations. But they had to dress up like Aunt Jemima. That was part of the contract. But they were also asked to speak like the - in the broken English that you would see in the advertisements. And many of them, including my grandmother, refused to do it.
So they knew that when they were going into these small towns - my grandmother had a six-state region that included Iowa, the Dakotas, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. And when they would go into these towns, they knew that in many cases, they were going into small towns where people had not seen Black women before. And so my grandmother - and I found recordings and examples of news coverage when she had go into these towns. And she talked to reporters. And she'd explain that she would sing gospel songs when she was serving these pancakes because she wanted people to know that she was a woman of God, that she would focus on young children. And she would recite poetry.
And, you know, I wrote about this recently. And I said she must have blown their little minds when they came expecting to see someone who spoke in this slave patois but, instead, they heard someone speak in the crisp diction that I remember from my grandmother. But my grandmother was doing work that was well-paid. And she was stepping on a stage that was available to her. And so she used this as a stepping stone toward a better life.
SIMON: Your grandmother was regarded as a celebrity in many of these towns. But I gather, when night fell, she couldn't stay there.
NORRIS: Well, in talking to other people whose family members did this work, they would go to towns. And they would look for a small sign that was usually in the lower corner of the window. And it would say tourists. And that was an indication that that was a home that would feed or house people of color when they were traveling.
SIMON: Michele, you talk with love and admiration as many people do, for your grandmother. Why do you think the subject never came up?
NORRIS: I think this is a particularly steep hill for families of color, for black families in particular because there was so much pain to overcome. It was such a difficult life to love a country that doesn't love you back. And there were things that they just didn't talk about for several reasons. Scott, part of it was it was pain. You know, they were trying to move forward. And in order to move forward, they they couldn't wallow in pain and frustration and anger and anxiety. Part of it - and this is where the word grace comes in. Part of it is that they wanted very much to give the next generation wind in their wings. They didn't want to pass on their frustrations and pass on their pains necessarily so that the next generation could move forward without being weighed down by some of that.
You know, I've spent much of my career behind the microphone. There are stages that are available to me that just were not available to her. And I think about that when I step on a stage, when I speak to the public and recognize that things are are easier for me - not easy yet but easier for me because of the kind of work that women like her did sometimes quietly, always boldly. But activism comes in very many forms.
We're seeing a kind of activism in the streets right now where people are taking to the streets and demanding rights and demanding that this country live up to its promise. But, sometimes, activism takes on a quieter tone. Sometimes, activism rolls into a small town and shows the people of that town what black elegance and black eloquence and black success can sound and look like even when they're not expecting that.
SIMON: Michele Norris, our colleague for many years, a columnist, talking about her grandmother Ione Brown. Thanks so much for being with us, Michele.
NORRIS: Good to be with you, Scott - my best to you and your family. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.