28 Days of Black Joy: Candy Ladies

Illustration for article titled 28 Days of Black Joy: Candy Ladies
Photo: Diego Cervo (Shutterstock)

What happens to an auntie deferred?

Does she dry up
Like a pound cake in the sun?
Or open an establishment
that sells bootleg honeybuns?
Does she attend
every usher board meeting?
or cover her furniture
With plastic sheeting?

Does she sit on the porch
and learn how to knit.
And where’d she get
those bomb-ass peppermints?

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As a founding member of Auntiefa, I have long expressed my adoration for the population of pocketbook-carriers. But, while The Root has an entire series dedicated to the well-bosomed leather skirt wearers who still somehow think they have a chance with El Debarge, we have ignored an important segment of Black America for far too long:

The Candy Ladies.

You know who I’m talking about: The former aunties who have risen above starter-level red velvet cakes and can make a pan of biscuits from scratch before they even get to the second side of a James Cleveland album. The women whose impeccably outfitted living rooms are illuminated by an amber light that can only be achieved by filtering the sun through drapes as thick as church pew coverings.

The deaconesses and the mall walkers. The Berthas who buy Brach’s peppermint in bulk and recite “scripture” instead of Bible verses. The Marthas who fondly remember the missionary position (The church title, not the sexual stance, you heathen!) The Bettys and Brendas who keep the broach industry afloat. The Helens who always have handkerchiefs and still use the word “heathen,” “hussy,” and “heifer.” The women who have earned the “sister” and “miss” honorifics that precede their two first names. Sister Dorothy Mae and Miss Barbara Ann (pronounced “Bah-brann”) can tell you about the original Werther’s Originals, before they changed the recipe.

True story: A few weeks ago, I was researching an institution from the 1950s and ’60s called the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law Breakers. I had given up hope for finding anyone who remembered the school when someone passed along my number to an actual candy lady. After an hour conversation on how her best friend in middle school used to work there, she told me to give her a day or two, and she’d see what she could do “if the Lord is willing.”

In 48 hours I received five calls from people who attended, worked and lived on the campus.

Where would our people be without these matriarchs of the Black community?

How would we know that Mr. Willie died? How else would you know that the Kroger used to be a five-and-dime store that sold ice-cold Coca Colas for a nickel? Who else holds the pastor accountable while serving as the recording secretary for the usher board and reading the church announcements? How do you think Mr. Willie got on the Sick and Shut-In List? Who do you think made those green beans for Mr. Willie’s funeral after party?

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Miss Wilma Jean, that’s who.

These women are always happy because they don’t have time for post-auntiedom depression. They are the keepers of our oral tradition. They are the faith bearers and the prayer warriors. They work the polls on Election Day and show up to the city council meetings to “see what these people talking about.” They populate pastors’ anniversaries and park benches. Even the thugs on the corner know they better pull their pants up and use decent language when Miss Wanda walks by.

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According to the Institute of Candy Lady Arts and Sciences, 69 percent of Candy Ladies are retired school teachers, 22 percent “worked for white folks” and another 9 percent did “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” Most of their time is spent fixing plates and reading oversized bibles. Known for their patience, this group comprises four out of every five Sunday school teachers and are only angered when people don’t eat their vegetables; when they hear that loud “boomp-de-boomp music” and when people “act like they ain’t got no home training.”

Like that boy 23 Savage. What kind of name is that? And why did he glue a perfectly good broach to his forehead? I saw it on Facebook. What he needs is some anointing oil and some of these collards. Lou Rawls would never do that! Now that man could sing! And he was sexy, too!

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This Black History Month, let us not forget some of our most heralded Candy Ladies, including:

  • Shirley Chisholm: Before becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress, Shirley Anita Chisholm was a Candy Lady protege. Partly because of her name (“Pronounced “Shur-lann”), Chisholm was one of the few people allowed to skip over the auntie phase and go straight to candy lady.
  • Sister Wilma Pendergrass: The wife of burgeoning St. Louis funeral director Levester Pendergrass, in 1921, Wilma finally grew tired of her husband returning home from work with sweat-stained clothes. She stapled a popsicle stick to a piece of cardboard, wrote the funeral home’s name on it and suggested he pass them out at the next homegoing service instead of business cards. Since then, the church fan has served as analog air conditioning in houses of worship across America.
  • Madam C.J. Walker: One of the most financially successful Candy Ladies in Black History, not only did Walker pioneer the process known as “greasing the scalp,” but, as a trailblazer in the early Candy Lady movement, she changed her name from Sarah Breedlove just so people could call her “ma’am.”
  • Essie Mae Brown: Essie Mae was not the first candy lady, nor was she most successful. But on April 23, 1929, Essie introduced her Memphis neighborhood to a fruit-flavored drink called Kool-Aid. Because the product was new on the market, Miss Essie Mae didn’t know if it would spoil, so she stored the cups in the freezer, thus giving birth to the Kool-Aid cup.
  • Moms Mabley: Before becoming the first Black woman to earn national headliner status on the vaudeville circuit, Loretta Mary Aiken was one of the first women to wear a bonnet and a housecoat in public.
  • Doris Lue Jenkins: In 1972, while on a cross-country Amtrak from Sacramento to Macon, Ga., Doris befriended a woman who seemed distraught. The lady told Doris the story of how her man had been unsuccessful and landing a job prospect after relocating to Los Angeles and was returning to Savannah. As Doris listened, she handed the woman a piece of strawberry candy and said “Baby, you got a nice voice. You should write a song about that.” Doris will never forget how that piece of peppermint lit up that woman’s face, inspiring her to become one of the leading candy ladies in the Greater Macon area.
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While Doris’ story is not important to history, it is the quintessential candy lady tale. Since that day, Doris has offered candy to everyone she met. She is gone but not forgotten. Sometimes, in her later years, during Bible study, or while washing her greens, Doris would wonder whatever happened to that woman she met on that midnight train to Georgia.

Her name was Gladys something.

Nice name for a Candy Lady.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

DISCUSSION

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FeministOnFire

The women who have earned the “miss” honorifics that precede their first names.

After an hour conversation on how her best friend in middle school used to...

Who else holds the pastor accountable while serving as the recording secretary...

Who do you think made those green beans...

They...show up to the city council meetings to “see what these people talking about.”

Even the thugs at the casino know to use decent language when Miss walks up...

...this group are only angered when they hear that loud “boomp-de-boomp music” and when people “act like they ain’t got no home training.”

You know how we do!