The world that Paula Deen grew up in
A friend of mine introduced me to Food Network star Paula Deen some years ago. I had watched a lot of cooking shows on the network but had never seen hers.
So I looked her up, and what I saw was a gray-haired white woman who had assumed the mammy stereotype role that the South had long ascribed to black women. She was overweight, talked too loud and worst of all, she cackled – not laughed but cackled, incessantly. Her Southern accent was so thick that it sounded fake.
The only things missing were the red kerchief on her head and the apron.
When I learned that Deen dumped pounds of butter in her recipes – ignoring how bad it was for people’s health – I was even more done with her.
If Deen had been black, I would have cringed at the role she was playing. As a Southerner – I live in the North now but I will always be of the South (with all it warts) – I found Deen’s style an affront to women. She and Miller Gaffney of South Carolina, a star on the now-defunct PBS show “Market Warriors,” were the ultimate stereotypes of what people believed southern white women to be. And so it was upsetting to see both of them unabashedly playing up that image and their native tongue.
Deen seemed to have taken a southern black stereotype, put her own brand on it and made millions of dollars ($17 million, according to one account). She had made it her own in much the same way that black folks are told to do with words and phrases that have been used to denigrate them.
While Deen exploited the role of the mammy to make money, she may have not gotten too far away from the roots of her southern childhood that attached derogatory labels to black people. A daughter of the South, I’m sure she grew up in a world where the N-word was used so often that she and children like her considered it a surname for all black people. But that atmosphere was not limited to the South; it was ingrained in the whole country.
Deen admitted using the N-word in a deposition for a lawsuit filed by one of her employees, who accused her and her brother of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Her using the word did not surprise me. What I found surprising, though, was that she admitted applying it to a black person.
“But that’s just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the ’60s in the South,” she said, according to an NPR story of questions and answers from the transcript of the deposition.
Her lawyer has denied the accusations, which were first released in a story in the National Enquirer, and said that Deen does not condone the use of the word or others like it. Her company issued a statement that she had used the word but in a different time in history.
Deen was born in 1947 in Albany, GA, and grew up during a time when books, toys and dolls presented black people derogatorily, and society treated them just about any way they wanted to – and got away with it. A friend of mine’s husband hated white people until the day he died because a white man kicked him in the face for no reason at all when he was a child.
On the auction tables, I see the remnants of a period before, after and beyond Deen’s birth that was infested with an insidious racism that left its imprint. Here are some examples from auctions:
Four sheets containing a song about four black men who dwindled down to one through mishaps. It was written in the format of “Ten Little Indians,” a stereotypical version of which was the original title of an Agatha Christie mystery with the N-word. At the top of the sheets were men in colorful costumes. There was no date on the sheets. At the auction, an African American vendor quietly asked if I were going to bid on them. No way, I said, and I assumed that he would. A week later, a white seller of antique glass asked if I had seen them, and we both agreed that they were simply awful.
The ubiquitous Cream of Wheat ads that one auction-goer pointed out to me recently with the black chef as servant. The ad was on the flip side of the cover of “The Etude” magazine, where you could always find them, he told me. And there it was, a constant reminder of the perceived subservience of black people.
A book of Southern rhymes, whose drawings included a heavy-set black woman selling fish, with a kerchief on her head and lips painted red.
A black and white print titled “Blackbirds” of a bare tree with little naked black children sitting on the branches. It’s a difficult image to look at.
Nicodemus books with displeasing depictions of the little boy and his family.
Deen is not the only one who’s used the N-word (and still do), and I don’t mean just white people, either. We all know that rappers used it like it was a substitute for the world “the.” I have a cousin who peppers his Facebook messages with the word. Every time I see it I bristle and wonder if it ever occurred to him that it might just be offensive to some of his Facebook “Friends” like me. (Note to Sherry, tell him that it is).
But he’s not Paula Deen. He doesn’t have a national platform where he can influence people, but he does have his own little private world where he does.