The worldwide Black Lives Matters protests against police brutality and racial injustice have prompted me to meditate on (among other topics) … vanilla. For vanilla — one of the most expensive spices on the planet — loomed large in my youthful witnessing of a quiet act of resistance against forces that have kneed the necks (literally and figuratively) of Blacks since we were forcibly removed from African shores.
As for Africa, the multi-billion dollar vanilla industry traces its roots to Edmond Albius, an enslaved Black born near Madagascar in 1829. At age 12, young Edmond invented a technique for hand-pollinating vanilla orchids (the source of vanilla), a painstaking process still used today and a prevailing factor in the $500 per kilo price of vanilla beans from Madagascar, the world’s leading supplier of the premium product.
“Those of us who devote ourselves to pure vanilla … marvel at the patience and skill required to achieve its full complexity,” explains Carolyn Lochhead, a writer and photographer whose family has manufactured vanilla under the R.R. Lochhead and Cook’s brands for more than a century. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Beauty was in short supply for those who tracked police violence against African-Americans during the summer of 1967; a siege of lawlessness from “the law” that ignited fiery rebellions in Newark and Detroit (among other locales). The uprisings left scores of people dead and injured thousands including Joe Bass, Jr., a 12-year-old Black boy who miraculously survived an errant bullet fired by a white policeman. In a precursor to the haunting footage of a prone George Floyd, a photo of Bass’s bleeding body later appeared on the cover of Life magazine.
Then age 13, I took careful note — from my Chicago-area home — of the racial unrest that dominated headlines across the nation. And it was not lost on me that shortly before the discord began, Martin Luther King, Jr., had prophetically declared: “All of our cities are potentially powder kegs. … A riot is the language of the unheard.”
I also observed the response of my parents to the “long hot summer” of 1967 (as it was dubbed). They, who were among the multitudes of Blacks who’d fled the Jim Crow south for the promise of better lives in northern cities — a mass migration recounted (to riveting effect) in The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. While my parents never openly discussed the police brutality that fuelled the rebellions, I marked a distinct “not today, Satan” shift in their attitude toward white folks.
Fast forward and I’m en route with my father to buy refreshments for my upcoming birthday celebration. But instead of driving to our regular grocery store, he heads across town to a shopping district that belies “the times they are a-changin” political landscape and holds fast to a 1950s “Leave it To Beaver” vibe.
My jaw drops when my dad parks in front of a soda fountain shop that I’d read about but never entered. Having taken a pause from their banana splits and hot fudge sundaes, a sea of white people swivel in our direction as my father proceeds to the counter and orders a half-gallon of hand-packed vanilla ice cream. “Yes, sir,” said the blonde, bow-tied, soda jerk as he grabbed a scoop, leaned into the open top freezer and started to crank.
Nary a syllable passed between me and my dad. But as I watched the clerk hand him a gleaming white carton bearing the signature red stripes of the fountain shop, the enduring message of a civil rights anthem was clear: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
And so, last week with the continued easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the funeral services for George Floyd and in tribute to my late father, I visited a North End Halifax business that has long been a proponent of racial justice. There, at DeeDee’s Ice Cream parlour, I bought two hand-packed pints — vanilla (of course) and Mexican chocolate. Black and white together. We shall overcome.
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.
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