Vanilla ice cream

Things remind me of other things, all but forgotten.

One of most peculiar items I came across recently was this: Black people were denied vanilla ice cream in the Jim Crow south – except on Independence Day.

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.”

I’m told that Thomas Jefferson, writer of the document associated with that day, was so addicted to vanilla ice cream that he arranged for vanilla beans to be transported in diplomatic pouches while he was serving in France and their revolution was going on.

Why then? The writer Michael W Twitty wonders:

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.

That article reminded of a totally unrelated story, except that it did involve ice cream. Growing up in Binghamton in upstate New York, I was usually the only black kid in my class.
One day in fifth or sixth grade, we were going to get ice cream that came in these little paper cups. We used wooden spoons to eat it. I was out of the room when the voting on decision on flavors – vanilla or chocolate, was being made.

When I came back to the classroom, I was asked what I wanted, and I said “Vanilla.” The whole class moaned; EVERYBODY else, probably 15 white kids, had picked chocolate. They were disappointed that it had not been a unanimous choice. But I didn’t particularly LIKE that brand of chocolate, as I thought it tasted chalky.

I wondered if chocolate had been a consensus choice, with the kids who thought “I don’t care” going along with the majority. In any case, this made feel really uncomfortable because it made me feel different when, for the most part, I felt like one of the group. Don’t think it was specifically racial, probably not in their minds, though it may have rattled a bit in mine.

But the earlier story above made my choice of 50 years ago, somehow, a little more OK.


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