Question of the Month:

Understanding the Book Epaminondas and His Auntie

Epaminondas

January 2009

Q:  My question to you is: When I was a little boy, we often had a substitute teacher in elementary school who would read this racist book to our class every single time she subbed for us. The boy's mom would send him out on errands and he would mess up every time. Seems as I recall, he had a Latin name (I'm spelling phonically here): "Epaminombus" or something close to that. This was back in 1964-66. Ever run across this book? Know the title? When it was written? What do you think of it?

-- Doug Thompson - Virginia Beach, Virginia

A:  The name of the book is Epaminondas and His Auntie, originally published by Buccaneer Books in 1911. It was written by Sara Cone Bryant and illustrated by Inez Hogan. The tale is an example of a “noodlehead story” or “numskull story,” a nonsensical fable characterized by improbable plots, unintentional mishaps, silly humor, and a likeable, though dim-witted, main character. At their best, noodlehead stories teach us to laugh at ourselves for sometimes being foolish. At their worst, these stories teach us that others are stupid and inferior. In Epaminondas and His Auntie, Epaminondas, a simple-minded Black boy, manages to unintentionally destroy or kill everything that he takes from his aunt’s house to bring to his mother’s house. Later versions of the tale were published by Constance Egan, Eve Merriam, Mary Claire Pinckney, and Cathy East Dubowski. Epaminondas and His Auntie was a popular book in the nation’s elementary schools until the 1960s. The book is now widely available via the Internet.

Epaminondas

What do I think of it?  When we sit to read a book we bring the book to us but we also bring ourselves to the book. In other words, our interpretation of the book is filtered through many lenses, especially our experiences. For example, my training as a sociologist influences my interpretation of the book. For much of this nation’s history ideas of white supremacy and white privilege were so deeply embedded in the culture that they were taken for granted. These ideas were not simply mainstreamed, they were the stream. Racism showed up in the non-material culture — in people’s attitudes, tastes, values, beliefs, norms, and behaviors — and it showed up in material culture, everything from Whites Only signs to anti-Black caricatured cookie jars. This is racial hegemony. The belief that Blacks were stupid, for example, was presumptively shared and rarely debated. A sociologist is taught to look at cultural patterns, to look beyond the particular to the general. The sociologist in me sees Epaminondas and His Auntie as one of the many ways that African Americans, especially children, were depicted as stigmatized deviants, “racial others.”

What do I think of it?  I have spent my entire adult life collecting material objects for the Jim Crow Museum: objects that portray Black women as bossy Mammies or hypersexual Jezebels; Black men as lazy Toms, Coons, and Sambos; and Black children as dim-witted Pickaninnies. In the early days of American children’s literature, Black characters in picture books were largely portrayed in racially stereotypical ways. Teachers who wanted to teach stories with young Black characters had largely unflattering portrayals from which to select, for example, Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899), Blanche Seale Hunt’s Stories of Little Brown Koko(1940), the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Niggers,” and the many commercial variations of each of these tales. My three-decade long career as a collector of so-called black memorabilia has obviously impacted me. A person without this collecting experience might find it easier to view Epaminondas and His Auntie as a race-neutral story.

Epaminondas and His Auntie

I have had White Americans tell me that Epaminondas and His Auntie was, for them, a cute story that taught them good cognitive skills, most notably, the skills associated with following directions and making good decisions. I do not dispute this. How could I? The lessons we learn are ours. But books can teach multiple lessons. One child, sitting on her father’s lap, learned that Epaminondas failed by not applying different solutions to different problems. Another child learned that, unlike Epaminondas’ Mammy, he should always give explicit instructions. These are good life lessons; however, it is also possible that a child reading Epaminondas and His Auntie learned that Blacks “look funny” — jet-black skin, nappy hair, and darting eyes — and “talk funny” — “Law’s sake! Epaminondas, what you got in your hat?” I have asked those who remember reading the story with their parents a simple question: “Did your mother or father imitate Black dialect when he or she read the words attributed to Mammy?” In most cases the answer was “yes” and I know that this is one of the early ways that racial lenses are developed.

What do I think of it?  Again, I confess that my feelings toward Epaminondas and His Auntie are shaped by my experiences, including my experiences as a person of color in this country. For instance, I am sensitive to names and the prestige that is implicit in some and absent in others. The women in Epaminondas and His Auntie do not have names. They have the appellations Auntie and Mammy. These are not names they are racial ranks. In the Jim Crow Museum we have: a can of Aunt Dinah Molasses; Aunt Sally, a Mammy image, on cans of baking powder; and Mammy images on Luzianne coffee. Mammy and Aunt(ie) are not people; rather, they are racial caricatures. I am sensitive to names and the way they are used to scoff at others. Before the civil rights movement it was common to give Black characters in jokes, anecdotes, and stories the names of famous White people. In a joke the Black character might be named Caesar or Napoleon. In Epaminondas and His Auntie the main character is mockingly named after the 4th Century Greek great general and statesman, Epaminondas.

In January 1971 the City Council of San Jose, California voted to remove Epaminondas and His Auntie from general circulation in the city’s libraries and to place the book on reserve. A few months later the City Council reconsidered its action and removed restrictions on the book. In most other public libraries the book was quietly removed during the 1960s or 1970s. I am ambivalent about removing books like Epaminondas and His Auntie from public libraries. I find the book offensive (finally answered the question). However, I do not support top-down censorship. I do see the value of having racially offensive objects in the public so the objects can be used as tools to facilitate healthy, sometimes painful, dialogue.

The original version of Epaminondas and His Auntie is now in the public domain and I present a link so that our viewers can read the book, view the accompanying illustrations, and decide for themselves (an excerpt appears below).

Epaminondas and His Auntie

Epaminondas used to go to see his Auntie 'most every day, and she nearly
always gave him something to take home to his Mammy.

One day she gave him a big piece of cake; nice, yellow, rich gold-cake.

Epaminondas took it in his fist and held it all crunched up tight, like
this, and came along home. By the time he got home there wasn't anything
left but a fistful of crumbs. His Mammy said,--

"What you got there, Epaminondas?"

"Cake, Mammy," said Epaminondas.

"Cake!" said his Mammy. "Epaminondas, you ain't got the sense you was
born with! That's no way to carry cake. The way to carry cake is to wrap
it all up nice in some leaves and put it in your hat, and put your hat
on your head, and come along home. You hear me, Epaminondas?"

"Yes, Mammy," said Epaminondas.

Next day Epaminondas went to see his Auntie, and she gave him a pound of
butter for his Mammy; fine, fresh, sweet butter.

Epaminondas wrapped it up in leaves and put it in his hat, and put his
hat on his head, and came along home. It was a very hot day. Pretty soon
the butter began to melt. It melted, and melted, and as it melted it ran
down Epaminondas' forehead; then it ran over his face, and in his ears,
and down his neck. When he got home, all the butter Epaminondas had was
on him. His Mammy looked at him, and then she said,--

"Law's sake! Epaminondas, what you got in your hat?"

"Butter, Mammy," said Epaminondas; "Auntie gave it to me."

"Butter!" said his Mammy. "Epaminondas, you ain't got the sense you was
born with! Don't you know that's no way to carry butter? The way to
carry butter is to wrap it up in some leaves and take it down to the
brook, and cool it in the water, and cool it in the water, and cool it
in the water, and then take it on your hands, careful, and bring it
along home."

"Yes, Mammy," said Epaminondas.

By and by, another day, Epaminondas went to see his Auntie again, and;
this time she gave him a little new puppy-dog to take home.

Epaminondas put it in some leaves and took it down to the brook; and
there he cooled it in the water, and cooled it in the water, and cooled
it in the water; then he took it in his hands and came along home. When
he got home, the puppy-dog was dead. His Mammy looked at it, and she
said,--

"Law's sake! Epaminondas, what you got there?"

"A puppy-dog, Mammy," said Epaminondas.

"A puppy-dog!" said his Mammy. "My gracious sakes alive, Epaminondas,
you ain't got the sense you was born with! That ain't the way to carry a
puppy-dog! The way to carry a puppy-dog is to take a long piece of
string and tie one end of it round the puppy-dog's neck and put the
puppy-dog on the ground, and take hold of the other end of the string
and come along home, like this."

"All right, Mammy," said Epaminondas.

Next day Epaminondas went to see his Auntie again, and when he came to
go home she gave him a loaf of bread to carry to his Mammy; a brown,
fresh, crusty loaf of bread.

So Epaminondas tied a string around the end of the loaf and took hold of
the end of the string and came along home, like this. (Imitate dragging
something along the ground.) When he got home his Mammy looked at the
thing on the end of the string, and she said,--

"My laws a-massy! Epaminondas, what you got on the end of that string?"

"Bread, Mammy," said Epaminondas; "Auntie gave it to me."

"Bread!!!" said his Mammy. "O Epaminondas, Epaminondas, you ain't got
the sense you was born with; you never did have the sense you was born
with; you never will have the sense you was born with! Now I ain't gwine
tell you any more ways to bring truck home. And don't you go see your
Auntie, neither. I'll go see her my own self. But I'll just tell you one
thing, Epaminondas! You see these here six mince pies I done make? You
see how I done set 'em on the doorstep to cool? Well, now, you hear me,
Epaminondas, you be careful how you step on those pies!"

"Yes, Mammy," said Epaminondas.

six mince pies Then Epaminondas' Mammy put on her bonnet and her shawl and took a basket in her hand and went away to see Auntie. The six mince pies sat cooling in a row on the doorstep.

And then,--and then,--Epaminondas was careful how he stepped on those pies!

He stepped (imitate)--right--in--the--middle--of--every--one.

* * * * *

And, do you know, children, nobody knows what happened next! The person
who told me the story didn't know; nobody knows. But you can guess.

January 2009 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum

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