Thursday, June 16, 2016

No Vanilla Ice Cream for Negroes? History versus Folklore #1

The idea that black people were not allowed to eat vanilla ice cream was popularized in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
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.
People who take that literally miss the implications of "used to say". Angelou is telling us that's a folk saying along the lines of "How racist were the people in Stamps?" "They were so racist a Negro couldn't buy vanilla ice cream except on the fourth of July." It's not denying extreme racism; it's making a joke about it. The meaning is symbolically true: the people in Stamps were about as racist as could be.  The truth is being told indirectly.

Researching this brought up an interesting fact: The New York Times mistakenly credited a black man with inventing ice cream:
THE ORIGIN OF ICE CREAM: The man who invented ice cream was a Negro by the name of Jackson, and in the early part of the present century kept a small confectionery store. Cold custards, which were cooled after being made by setting them on a cake of ice, were very fashionable, and Jackson conceived the idea of freezing them, which he did by placing the ingredients in a tin bucket and completely covered with ice. Each bucket contained a quart, and was sold for $1. It immediately became popular, and the inventor soon enlarged his store, and when he died left a considerable fortune A good many tried to follow his example, and ice cream was hawked about the streets, being wheeled along very much as the hokey-pokey carts are now, but none of them succeeded in obtaining the flavor that Jackson had in his product.
– New York Times, March 11, 1894 (p. 18)
Ice cream is, of course, much older than the possibly mythical Mr. Jackson; see Ice cream - Wikipedia.

A Guardian article, "Black people were denied vanilla ice cream in the Jim Crow south – except on Independence Day" by Michael W Twitty, confuses folklore with fact: in the segregated South, many white businesses refused to serve black people at all, and others had special conditions for black people: order at the back door, eat in the back yard, use the "colored" wash room, watch movies in the balcony but not on the main floor, etc. Black people were expected to treat white people with great deference. But there's no evidence vanilla ice cream was forbidden to anyone, and if you remember that racist business people were still business people, it doesn't make sense: if a white man would sell milk and white bread to a black person, why wouldn't he sell vanilla ice cream? Many racists during Jim Crow sold things to black people because their money was green.

Here's a photo by Gordon Parks showing how black people bought ice cream in Alabama in 1956:

But folklore is never about what's logically true. It's about what's emotionally true, and so black people joked that a Negro couldn't buy vanilla ice cream where they grew up. Humor has always been a survival tactic for people in hard times.

Related:  Black Babies used as Gator Bait? History versus Folklore #2