Exploring the Corazón de Dixie with Julie M. Weise

corazonImmigration from Mexico is very relevant to our understanding of the contemporary American South.  It’s also been a political hot potato. To help us understand the history of Mexican immigration to our region, Pop South talks with historian Julie M. Weise, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon, about her new book Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South since 1910.

PS: For general readers, why does your book begin in 1910?

Mexican-origin people have been a significant part of U.S. history since 1848, when the United States took what is now the U.S. Southwest from Mexico and made those who were living there into U.S. citizens. But 1910 is when the major narrative of Mexican American history shifts from conquest to immigration. The Mexican Revolution began that year, and the upheavals it caused kicked off the first major wave of cross-border migration; this only quickened due to demand for Mexican labor during World War One and the Roaring ’20s. Most people think of this migration having gone only to the Southwest; scholars have explored it also for the Midwest. But when one looks back to sources written at the time, it becomes clear that Mexican migrants were really everywhere in the U.S. during the 1920s — from Alaska to Pennsylvania, and indeed, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. These latter migrations are the subjects of my book’s early chapters.

PS: How has the culture of Mexicanos added to the culture of the American South?

Mississippi even has a "Hot Tamale Trail." Photo credit: Southern Foodways Alliance
Mississippi even has a “Hot Tamale Trail.” Photo credit: Southern Foodways Alliance

The influence of Mexicano culture on Southern culture has, at least until recently, been experienced at the very local level, and at times has even been deliberately hidden; this is part of why it has taken so long for their story to be told by historians. Mississippi’s signature Hot Tamales were most likely first brought there by the thousands of Mexicanos who lived and worked in the Delta in the 1920s-30s; yet, those Mexicano descendants who remained in the Delta deliberately assimilated into the white side of the color line and seldom acknowledged, let alone celebrated, their Mexican heritage. So until recently, the tamales were not closely associated with their original purveyors. Across the river, black and white people who lived in the Arkansas Delta in the 1950s –many still alive today– have vivid memories of the exciting cosmopolitan influence that Mexican workers brought to their small towns during that decade.

PS: What makes the experience of Mexicanos in the South similar/different from other regions of the United States?

During the Jim Crow period, Mexicanos struggled economically everywhere that they worked as low-wage, mostly-rural laborers; the South often provided them a bit more economic mobility than elsewhere but at other times, their economic conditions there were worse. However, the limits placed on Mexicanos’ life chances specifically by race were much less significant in the South than in the Southwest. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) was interpreted by courts to guarantee Mexicans’ legal classification as white, but Southwestern locations like Texas and California found workarounds and still solidified Jim Crow exclusion of Mexicanos from the privileges of whiteness.

By contrast, Mexicanos were oppressed by a distinctly non-white racialization in early 1920s Mississippi, but by the 1930s had successfully challenged that status and eventually assimilated onto the white side of the color line. Interwar New Orleans is perhaps best compared to Chicago or Los Angeles, urban locations that also had growing black and European immigrant populations in that period. My research shows that New Orleans is unique among these cities, the only place historians have yet uncovered where Mexicanos’ racial experiences were much closer to those of European immigrants (not just off-white Italians and Jews but even German and French immigrants) as opposed to their Mexicano counterparts elsewhere.

PS: In the current debate over immigration, there is tough talk about building a wall on the southern border of the U.S. to keep Mexicans out.  Historically, how has the U.S. South evolved in its thinking about Mexican immigration to where it now includes support for a wall?

From the 1960s-90s, Mexicanos became an important rhetorical symbol for white conservatives in Southern agricultural towns. Mexicanos came to be seen as a not-black minority with whom white conservatives and Evangelicals could “build bridges” across race lines without directly confronting slavery and Jim Crow. This was an opportunity to make amends for their opposition to civil rights for blacks, while at the same time having a convenient foil with which to criticize blacks’ work ethic. In that sense, the growing population of Mexicanos in conservative parts of the South shaped particular local cultures of pro-immigrant conservatism, which defied (and often butted heads with) national trends in anti-immigrant politics during the late twentieth century. For example, local white conservative legislators would regularly do everything they could to prevent immigration enforcement, and white Evangelicals invested disproportionately generous resources ministering to Mexicanos as opposed to white or black poor people in their communities.

Paradoxically, the South’s integration into the nation, and the adoption of California-generated images of Mexicanos as unworthy consumers of whites’ tax dollars, has made local conditions and policies progressively harsher for the South’s Mexicanos since about 2005. These movements have been based more commonly in the region’s least “Southern” spaces–suburbs and exurbs–rather than its traditional rural areas, though that may be changing as we speak thanks to forces unleashed by the campaign of Donald Trump. While some say the Southernization of U.S. politics accounts for its rightward turn in the 1980s, it’s the Westernization of Southern politics that accounts for the South’s recent turn to the right on immigration.
Julie Weise
Julie Weise

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Writing Corazón de Dixie while teaching courses on global migration, I began to notice intriguing parallels between the ideas of Mexican workers and their government officials about what migration was supposed to accomplish for Mexican men in postwar Arkansas, and the ideas about migration held by migrants (Spanish, Italian, and Turkish among others) who worked in northern Europe, particularly Germany, during the same period. I am excited to be now learning German and perfecting my French so that I can study the ways these discourses moved across the Atlantic, and perhaps the Pacific as well, in the postwar period.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portraits of Aunt Jemima in Black and Blackface

Aunt-JemimaOne of the most iconic advertising images of the twentieth century is Aunt Jemima, and recently the heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington, just two of the women whose portraits were used as the “face” of the brand, are suing Quaker Oats for $2 billion and future revenues, claiming that not only did Green and Harrington portray Aunt Jemima, they were influential in shaping the recipe.  Attorneys for Quaker Oats are saying “hold on a minute,” Aunt Jemima might be the brand, but she was “never real.”

Yes and no.

The “biography” of Aunt Jemima was the creation of the J. Walter Thompson Agency based in New York. More specifically, it was the creation of James Webb Young, a native of Covington, Kentucky.  According to internal documents of the agency, the story of Aunt Jemima was that she came from Louisiana.  So, yes, the story is a creation.

256px-Aunt_Jemima,_AB_Frost
Portrait of Nancy Green by Arthur Burdette Frost.

Yet it is also true that Nancy Green, then a Chicago domestic, portrayed “Aunt Jemima” at the 1893 World’s Fair and made a career of doing so for nearly twenty years after the fair. More to the point, Green’s face was, in fact, the first image of Aunt Jemima to appear on the pancake box.  The Thompson Agency hired Arthur Burdette Frost, better known for his illustrations of Uncle Remus tales, to paint Green’s portrait.

If she contributed to the recipe, we may never know, but we do know that white women often took their maids’ recipes and passed them off as their own, a tradition that even Paula Deen maintained when she co-opted recipes from Dora Charles, a black woman who had worked in Deen’s Savannah restaurant for years.

It is true that several black women portrayed Aunt Jemima at various state fairs during the early decades of the twentieth century. They greatly assisted the brand by lending an authenticity to the product as being a particularly “southern” recipe.  This was in keeping with the character created by the Thompson Agency, whose story was that Aunt Jemima had been a slave and that she created the recipe that brought her such fame that it caused jealousy among other mammies.

But on radio, it was a different story. In a short program called Aunt Jemima Radio, which ran from 1930 to about 1942, she was portayed by several white women who were essentially doing a radio minstrel act. One of those women was Tess Gardella, an Italian-American actress from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Gardella had played “Queenie” in the stage version of Show Boat, and she parlayed that experience into performing as Aunt Jemima on the radio. She also played Aunt Jemima in a film short.  It is even on her gravestone.

Gardella's gravestone
Gardella’s gravestone
Tess Gardella as Aunt Jemima, early 1930s

Tess Gardella is also interesting because she filed a lawsuit against NBC for allowing an “imposter to broadcast as ‘Aunt Jemima,’ when as a matter of fact she [Gardella] had been using that name for years on stage and air.”  The actress further claimed that she had the right to use the name “by virtue of authority from the Quaker Oats Company.”  She won her lawsuit and nearly $116,000 in damages.

The heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington may have a difficult time in the courts because, unlike Gardella, they did not have a contract.  Still, their lawsuit brings into sharp relief the ways American companies have profited by using images of African Americans to brand their products.

*Some of the ideas expressed in this post are drawn from Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011), 40-41.

 

Talking Soul Food with Adrian Miller

SOUL FOOD Cover Image

Adrian Miller. Photo by Bernard Grant.
Adrian Miller. Photo by Bernard Grant.

Pop South is pleased to introduce readers to Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine (UNC Press, 2013), which won a prestigious James Beard Award.  Miller will be speaking at UNC Charlotte’s Center City location on  Thursday October 2, 2014 at 6pm. There is no charge, but reservations are required. RSVP to Dr. Jeffrey Leak, jleak@uncc.edu.

Below, Miller talks about soul food and his book.

Q: You aim to explore “where Southern food ends and soul food begins.” What’s the difference between the two?

A: Inside the South, the distinctions between the two are so subtle that it almost seems meaningless. In my experience, black Southerners are just as quick to call soul food “home cooking” or “country cooking.” I found that the Southern diet, particularly after the Civil War, is demarcated more by class than race. In other words, blacks and whites of a similar socioeconomic background pretty much eat the same foods. That said, I find that soul food dishes tend to have more intensity than their counterparts in Southern cuisine. They’re sweeter, more highly spiced and tend to have a higher fat content—all the things that one would expect from a cuisine using a lot of bland starches and lesser cuts of meat. Then there are the differences in preparation. Soul food joints and home cooks tend to have more bone-in meat selections (neckbones, smothered chicken, and meaty soups) and hardcore offerings like chitlins.

Q: You’ve structured your book around the dishes that might be found in a typical soul food meal. Was it difficult to select what to include?

A: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard, especially after I did my national soul food tour. Once one gets out of the American South, the soul food offerings at restaurants are pretty uniform. I thought long and hard about okra. It’s such an iconic food item, but I just didn’t see it on many soul food menus in the North and West even though fried okra is popping up at many more mainstream restaurants as a standard appetizer. It’s been more challenging to tell people what makes up my representative meal. As much as I say that I endeavored to describe a general meal that a soul foodie might eat at any time and at any place in the world, they think I’m whacked because I didn’t include their family favorite. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see a trail of smothered neckbones across the country.

Q: Who are two or three of the most important figures associated with soul food?

A: If you’re expecting me to name a famous chef or TV personality, it’s a no-go with soul food. There really isn’t a Julia Child for soul food. I’m tempted to say Edna Lewis, but she was adamant that her cooking was Southern and not soul food. There are some notable figures out of New Orleans like Leah Chase and Austin Leslie, but I think Creole cuisine is different than soul food. The only person who comes close to being a soul food icon is the recently departed Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. Thanks to her business savvy, New Yorkers and tourists from around the world have made her cooking synonymous with soul. Otherwise, soul food’s most important figures are the cooks who carried on culinary traditions by making Sunday dinner and holiday meals for their loved ones time and time again.

Q: Why are red drinks such an important component of a soul food meal?

A: Throughout our history, African Americans have made red drinks the beverage of choice for social occasions, especially big communal gatherings. There are some popular red drinks in West Africa such as bissap (known as hibiscus tea and agua de Jamaica in the U.S.), and some in the United States such as red lemonade and red soda pop. In present times, it’s hard to imagine a soul food meal without a red drink, whether it be a powdered drink, a punch, or a carbonated beverage. Walk into any soul food joint or fast food place with a primarily black clientele and you’re going to get offered a red drink. I know this is controversial, but I think that red Kool-Aid is soul food’s official drink.

Q: Are you optimistic about soul food’s future—both among home cooks and as a chef-driven cuisine?

A: I am optimistic! There’s so much interest in food now. I know a lot of people who are into watching cooking shows on television even though they will never actually cook. What’s gratifying is that more and more people are in search of and eager to explore bizarre foods, comfort foods, healthy foods, regional foods, unusual foods, and vintage foods. Soul food has all of those elements! I think this interest will move people to cooking instead of just watching TV and visiting a restaurant. The irony is that unless soul food’s stigma can be mitigated, culinary adventurers of all types may end up discovering more about what soul food has to offer than African Americans.

(Interview courtesy of Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2013.)

Southern progressives could learn a lesson from Julia Sugarbaker

sugarbaker
Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I write essays in an effort to counter some of negative images of the South that permeate popular culture or to contest the drivel that national journalists churn up in order to take swipes at a region they’ve never visited, much less know.

With the government shutdown, writers from The Nation to Salon to the Washington Post have all pointed their fingers at the South, especially conservative Republicans from the region, the most intransigent of which are members of the Tea Party caucus. Here, they say, the Civil War has not ended.  Here, they say, are nothing but a bunch of “Neo-Confederates.” I’m not suggesting that these journalists don’t have a point to make, but in making it, they are using a fairly broad brush that hits me and other southern progressives like a slap in the face.

This is when I wish I could muster up a rant that would make Julia Sugarbaker proud.  In the 1980s television series Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, played so well by the late actress Dixie Carter, knew how to rip someone a new one. In one particular episode, she lashed out at a writer from the New York Times for printing an article about dirt eating in the South.

Today, the articles about dirt eating may have subsided, but the stereotypes of the region remain.  The use of banjo music for television programs, illustrations of the Confederate battle flag for articles about the South, and so on. In one week John T. Edge might write a nice food article for the New York Times that gets all sorts of compliments (southerners do okay when it comes to food), but the next week a comedy-news show (The Daily Show or perhaps Real Time with Bill Maher) will interview a hillbilly type to make a point.

It’s tiresome and I wish Julia Sugarbaker were here to let them all know.

American Roadside: The Mammy of Natchez

Mammy's Cupboard is located on Highway 61 on the outskirts of Natchez, MS
Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, MS

mammyhead

Visitors who travel to Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Highway 61 will be able to see an interesting relic of roadside architecture known as Mammy’s Cupboard. While some visitors just want to stop and photograph the building, locals go there because it’s a great place to get a meat and three and a slice of banana caramel pie that by itself is worth the five-mile drive from town.  For others, the building’s association with a “southern mammy” is enough for them to keep on driving.

Built in 1940, Mammy’s Cupboard originally operated as a family-owned Shell Gas station and convenience store.  It was a good investment at the time. The Natchez Pilgrimage, the spring tour of the town’s antebellum mansions, had grown exponentially since it began in 1932. Tourism to the town exploded following the enormous success of Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939. Many Americans who saw the film later went in search of houses like Tara;Natchez offered them that and more.

Today, the gas pumps at Mammy’s have been closed off, but it remains a family-owned restaurant that is primarily open for lunch.

White tourists, of course, were drawn to the Natchez mammy from the beginning.  By 1940, Aunt Jemima–a marketing figure based on a southern mammy–was already the most recognizable advertising icon in the country.  She reminded whites that this kind of happy servitude was still within reach.  For African Americans, mammy icons were a reminder of their second-class status.

Former Howard University Professor Sterling Brown wrote about the figure while traveling through the region in the early 1940s.  In A Negro Looks at the South, he observed:

Weston
Edward Weston’s photo, 1941.

“Outside of Natchez, as a come-on for tourists, is the Mammy Gas Station and Barbecue Stand. With clean-cut features, a trim waist, and an elegant hoopskirt, a tall erect statue of a Mammy stands there, fronting the highway so proudly that her bandana seems out of place.  My host explained why: the yarn goes that she was intended to be a Southern belle, but when the bodice was poured, the bust filled past all planning.  Natchez objected to the breasts being so pendulous, and the statue’s complexion was colored to a deep chocolate.  Hoopskirt and waist and features still belong to the belle, but it is a colored girl, Egyptian-like, who welcomes the tourists to Natchez and invites the white natives to barbecue.”

In the more than seventy years that Mammy’s has been open, her skin tone has grown lighter in appearance–more white than black. She was still rather dark in the early 1990s, but has since become very fair–perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by the owners that the dark skin was at best inappropriate, and worse, an offensive reminder of the not-too-distant past.

mammypostcard
Postcard, 2013

Yet if you were to stop by Mammy’s Cupboard today, you’d still be able to get a postcard of the restaurant from the days when she was still dark.  It’s a small reminder of William Faulkner‘s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What it means to be a “soul sister” in a southern kitchen

dora-charles-paula-deen
Dora Parker, the woman Paula Deen called her “soul sister.” Photo credit: New York Times.

I encourage readers of Pop South to read today’s New York Times op-ed by Rebecca Sharpless providing historical perspective on Dora Charles, the woman Paula Deen called her “soul sister.”

Ms. Charles, who helped open Deen’s restaurant Lady & Sons as well as train other cooks who worked there, was recently interviewed by the Times about her relationship with Deen.  That interview is, in many ways, even more revealing about who Paula Deen is than the deposition she gave in the lawsuit brought against her by a white woman, Lisa Jackson.

I also encourage you to read Rebecca Sharpless’s book, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (UNC Press, 2010). It’s a great read.

Paula Deen, Uncle Bubba, and the Silence Over Sexual Harassment

Paula Deen with her brother Bubba Hiers, co-owners of Uncle Bubba's Oyster House.
Paula Deen with her brother Bubba Hiers, co-owners of Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House.

The Paula Deen fiasco that has unraveled over the past several days has me thinking about her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers.  Specifically, where the hell is Uncle Bubba?  Because if you take a look at the original lawsuit, he is the one who needs his ass kicked all the way to Tybee Island for the hostile work environment created at the restaurant that carries his name.

To be clear, I still believe Paula Deen needs to be held accountable.  And for sure, she needs to offer a more sincere apology–one that doesn’t suggest that it’s about someone who wants what she has.  (See the the analysis of her Today Show interview.)  That may be true, but it doesn’t let Deen off the hook for her own racial missteps.

What boggles my mind, though, is the extent to which Paula Deen goes to cover for the men in her life, especially her brother.

In the lawsuit, we learn that her companies and her restaurant Lady & Sons is essentially a “Boys Club.”  And the boys, it turns out, behave badly.  Especially Uncle Bubba.

The lawsuit, moreover, isn’t just about a work environment damaged by racial slurs.  It’s very much about the ways that sexual harassment created a hostile work environment for women.

First, it is abundantly clear from the allegations that Uncle Bubba is the primary culprit for making racial slurs.  Yet what is also clear is that he regularly engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior and often used foul language when speaking to women or about women.

According to the lawsuit:

–Karl Schumacher, who is in charge of compensation for employees allegedly said that “women are stupid because they think they can work and have babies and get everything done.”

–Bubba Hiers allegedly either brought pornography to the restaurant or openly watched pornography “on the kitchen computer” where it was visible to several employees;

–Bubba Hiers allegedly made several sexual jokes in the workplace, criticized the “fat girls” who worked in the restaurant, told Lisa Jackson she had “nice legs” and to bring in photos of herself from when she was younger; and suggested that the restaurant staff be replaced with “Hooter’s girls.”;

–Lisa Jackson also alleges that Bubba Hiers “[grabbed] her face and [kissed] her and [spit] on her;”

And on, and on.

So, what’s much more clear now from Paula Deen’s deposition is that while she used a racial slur herself, she enabled the men who worked for her to continue their behavior by either ignoring the complaints brought to her attention, being willfully unaware of how her restaurants operated, and now, covering their asses–especially her brother Bubba.  This pisses me off, because while Deen is apologetic about the racial slurs, she hasn’t offered one apology for the sexual harassment.

But then, the media has ignored this aspect of the lawsuit as well as “Uncle Bubba’s” behavior.

Fortunately, we have reached a point in our society where many of us can rise up (and have) to say “no” to racism.  But we have NOT reached that point when it comes to sexual harassment.  In the public trial of Paula Deen, everyone’s been silent on this point. The media, Paula Deen, and her sons. Of course, Uncle Bubba has been silent about everything and is hiding behind his sister’s imaginary hoop skirt.

I, for one, think Earl “Bubba” Hiers needs to be held responsible for his behavior.  He should be dragged through the court of public opinion, too. The fact of the matter is that he’s gotten off easy.

If Deen’s use of a racial slur has proven there are consequences for doing so, then why not the same when it comes to sexual harassment?  There needs to be consequences for that, too.

That day can’t come soon enough.