Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves"

The idea of the "deformed" or monstrous reappears in "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves." The central concern in the poem is protest against racial stereotypes--those directed especially against the black woman. However, in protesting the Aunt Jemima and black clown stereotypes, the speaker wonders about

 

                the logic that makes of them

(and me) confederates

of The Spider Girl, The Snake-skinned Man....

 

It is the refusal of the show's producer and the audience to accept the black entertainers except as one of a kind with the "Spider Girl" and the "Snake-skinned Man" that provokes the speaker's "wonder." Moreover, his wonderment is intensified by his realization that he, too, is regarded as a freak.

As the Zulu king and the Sambo stereotypes erroneously define the black man, so does the Aunt Jemima stereotype erroneously define the black woman, a characterization that reveals she is likewise an avatar of the black mammy stereotypes symbol of the antebellum surrogate mother whom Stephen Vincent Benét so accurately described in John Browm's Body. This character is the key persona in the poem in that she helps to develop the dramatic structure that rests on a dialogue that she holds with the speaker. She is the female half of an entertainment duo on Coney Island. After watching her and "Kokimo the Dixie Dancing Fool" do a "bally for the freak show," the speaker moves on to the beach, where he ponders their "psychic joke."

On the beach he encounters the unmasked Aunt Jemima. Without her kerchief and free of her clown role, she regales him with her life story because he reminds her so much of a former boyfriend. In an account that is reminiscent of Josephine Baker's life, she reveals that at the zenith of her career she, too, had danced before kings. Now suffering misfortunes that include loss of fame, fortune, and her lover, she has become "fake mammy to God's mistakes." These "mistakes" are, we have seen, "Spider Girl" and the

"Snake-skinned Man." Moreover, by extension, these "mistakes" also include the speaker, who, of course, is raceless in the poem and who believes he is their "confederate." Hence, we may well speculate on the nature of the speaker's aberration. Is this an aberration that defines him elsewhere in these poems as a "deformed homunculus"--deformed because he suffers a "psychic joke," a joke that we have learned he perceives his bisexuality to be? We can be certain that the decision to make the speaker a "confederate" of "Spider Girl" and the "Snake-skinned Man" is deliberate. The poem is a revised version of "from The Coney Island Suite," which first appeared in Figure of Time. In the early version the question is asked:

 

By what perverted logic they

are made confederates of the Snake-skinned man,

the boy with elephant face.

 

In "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves" the speaker walks to the beach

 

pondering the logic that makes of them

(and me) confederates

of The Spider Girl, The Snake-skinned Man....

 

With "and that's the beauty part," a distinctly Afro-American folk retort in recognition of exquisite irony, Aunt Jemima reevaluates her "fake mammy to God's mistakes" role. What she means is that just as she is not really a "mammy," likewise, her charges are not "God's mistakes." He does not make mistakes.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Pontheolla T. Williams Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry
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