One result of legalized racism in America was this strange limit, which helped teach kids the rules of a segregated society
By custom rather than by law, black folks were best off if they weren’t caught eating vanilla ice cream in public in the Jim Crow South, except – the narrative always stipulates – on the Fourth of July. I heard it from my father growing up myself, and the memory of that all-but-unspoken rule seems to be unique to the generation born between World War I and World War II.
But if Maya Angelou hadn’t said it in her classic autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I doubt anybody would believe it today.
People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate.
Vanilla ice cream – flavored with a Nahuatl spice indigenous to Mexico, the cultivation of which was improved by an enslaved black man named Edmund Albius on the colonized Réunion island in the Indian Ocean, now predominately grown on the largest island of the African continent, Madagascar, and served wrapped in the conical invention of a Middle Eastern immigrant – was the symbol of the American dream. That its pure, white sweetness was then routinely denied to the grandchildren of the enslaved was a dream deferred indeed.
What makes the vanilla ice cream story less folk memory and more truth is that the terror and shame of living in the purgatory between the Civil War and civil rights movement was often communicated in ways that reinforced to children what the rules of that life were, and what was in store for them if they broke them.
My father, for instance, first learned the rules when he first visited South Carolina with my grandfather in the 1940s. In our family’s home county of Lancaster, Daddy asked the general store owner if he could buy some candy and ice cream, referring to the white man as “Sir”. The store owner promptly grabbed my father by the collar, and yelled at him in the presence of my grandfather. Then he informed the elder man, “You’d better teach this little nigger to say ‘Yassuh’, boy! ‘Sir‘ ain’t good enough!” My grandfather grabbed his son and sped off.
The late poet Audre Lorde had a similar narrative to Angelou’s in her own autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. She visited Washington DC with her family as a child, around Independence Day, and her parents wanted to treat her to vanilla ice cream at a soda shop. They were rebuffed by the waitress and refused service. She expressed disappointment at her family and sisters for not decrying the act as anything but “anti-American”. She summed up the event:
The waitress was white, the counter was white, and the ice cream I never ate in Washington DC that summer I left childhood was white, and the white heat and white pavement and white pavement and white stone monuments of my first Washington summer made me sick to my stomach for the rest of the trip.
Why were black people allowed vanilla ice cream, but on the Fourth of July? Why then? After all, in 1852 Frederick Douglass railed against the idea of celebrating Americans’ independence when blacks did not have their full, God-given freedom. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”, asked Douglass of his audience when invited to speak in commemoration of the day.
I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
Was that somehow the purpose of allowing the denied ice cream cone? Was it a pacifier? Was it a message to us that, as long as we obeyed the rules, we could still be occasionally rewarded with just enough to keep us patriotic and loyal?
But perhaps it is pointless to ask for more than context.
The period during which African Americans were not allowed to eat vanilla ice cream tells us a lot about where this memory is located in time: a period of great progress driven by black Americans themselves. It was a time when our forefathers fought for this country and when our foremothers organized marches to protest lynching; when the mass migration from south to north took place; and when labor organizations became vehicles for early pressure for civil rights. The nadir of black life in America – the period from the born at end of Reconstruction through the full entrenchment of Jim Crow – was firmly on its way out.
That period of time also represented a closing of the gates of immigration from Europe, the slow rise of the United States as a world power, and the increasing unification of the idea and principles of “whiteness”. In 1910, for instance, “white” did not mean Italian, Jewish, Greek, Polish or any of a variety of other ethnicities we now unequivocally associate with privilege. It was, instead, still a term largely reserved for the “old Americans” – those of northwestern European stock. But that changed – at least for some of the Europeans who wound up on America’s shores.
In the south in particular, new ethnic whites quickly did all they could to assimilate and then affirm their whiteness – to not do so was death, as demonstrated by the lynchings of Sicilians in Louisiana and the lynching of Leo Frank, who was Jewish, in Georgia in the pre-war decades. Little things took on outsized meanings, and each was another way to differentiate between those who “belonged”, and those who were barely tolerated.
Perhaps the memory of being denied vanilla ice cream is not a literal memory for most: maybe it is just commentary. There is fantastic power in this fascinating memory of Jim Crow life because it calls our attention to the deeper psychological consequences of legalized racism in American life. The racism of the time period was not just about dignity and self-esteem – it was embodied and mythologized in physical terms.
So in a way, the denial of vanilla (and all its symbolic promise) was not so bad after all: indeed satisfaction, with “chocolate” is now emblematic of people of color being supported by and being self sufficient in their own communities. Without this exact satisfaction in our sense of beauty, worth, mind and purpose – without having learned to live without vanilla – we never would have fought to change the world.