February 11th, 2015
Rosa Parks would have turned 102 years old last week. A trove of her papers — from shopping receipts to postcards from Martin Luther King — is now being catalogued in the Library of Congress and among those papers is a cash envelope from the Detroit National Bank. One day, Rosa picked up a pencil and wrote on the back of that envelope a recipe for what she termed “Featherlite Pancakes.” It has fairly typical ingredients with one exception — peanut butter, and quite a bit of it.
Had I encountered this recipe in any other context, I would have dismissed it; peanut butter is part of my diet, but I don’t look for it lurking in pancakes. Of course, I didn’t encounter this in any other context and the notion that Rosa Parks had once made these, or perhaps had simply been intrigued by them, was enough to move me to action in the kitchen.
I am, apparently, not alone. The recipe is widely circulating on the internet, generally framed by language of excitement and discovery. That said, when I presented Rosa’s pancakes to the household last Sunday morning, the reception was noticeably cool. “What is that…?” my peanut-wary daughter puzzled after a bite. “There’s some sort of plant in here, I know that smell…”
She wasn’t alone. Those members of the household who embrace peanuts were, in the end, unwilling to embrace Rosa’s pancakes and even I, the instigator, had to agree that this was going to be a one-time-only experiment.
There, with my stacks of unwanted flapjacks, I had time to ponder how I’d come to be here. It was curiosity, of course, but what sort? Like many people, I know the story of the bus in the sketchiest outline, usually twinned with a sketchier sense of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Of Rosa herself, biography is usually boiled down to “seamstress at a local department store,” and “refused to give up her seat.” It’s not much, really, and — given that my stake in being un-white is no more than a damn small wedge of Cherokee — I began to wonder where the curiosity came from. The answer, and the thing which makes you forget how little there is of her in the non-biographies in the high school textbooks, is her face.
In the photos, she looks out at us, calm, poised, and quietly resolute — a model of personal dignity in the service of a greater dignity. There’s a lot of power in that mix of nobility and humbleness and it strikes me as curious that the moment of her transformation involved the same admixture — the humbleness of a city bus and a defining repudiation of the United States’ original sin. Rosa’s face makes her simultaneously one of us, and not. Even were she not trapped behind the glass of history, there’s something unknowable about this person who changed the trajectory of the society we all live in.
And that may be the thing. I live, to a degree, in a world Rosa Parks made. Admittedly, a lot of other people made it too, like Adolf Hitler, Ronald Reagan, John D. Rockefeller Sr, the Koch Brothers, and legions of Wall Streeters whose psyches could only be plumbed by Moliére. But when it comes to the makers of worlds I want to live in, the list is shorter. That’s where the curiosity comes in, a desire to know what kind of thing — besides the social justice that remains tragically unachieved — would make Rosa smile, at least inwardly.
The pancakes didn’t really reveal much, but the recipe just might. You see, she wrote it after she moved to Detroit in 1957, and she moved to Detroit after she had already moved to Hampton, Virginia, because (a) she and her husband had become unemployable in Montgomery and (b) the ongoing death threats. Rosa Parks was Alabama born and bred, but the land of her birth became inhospitable to the point of uninhabitable after the 381 days of the bus boycott.
Not, of course, that it ever had been truly hospitable. This was the Jim Crow South, and if you weren’t white, you were out of luck, segregated, disenfranchised from voting, with the Klan routinely marching down the street in front of your house, and heaven help you if you ended up in the hands of the all-white “justice” system.
But still… the landscape of your childhood is the only one you ever have. Rosa’s was a landscape of farms, the one she lived on with her mother and father when she was quite young, and then the farm of her mother’s parents, in a place that was barely a place, Pine Level.
It was part of what’s known as the Wiregrass Region, a coastal plain of sand hills and flatwoods, and it’s not a place you would choose to farm, what with its poor soils. But it’s the land that Rosa’s grandparents had and they used it to feed the family, growing corn, sweet potatoes and, yes, peanuts. Rosa would help out in the fields and peanuts are an ideal child-scale crop, low to the ground and easily harvested by uprooting the plant from the loose, sandy soil.
Rosa Parks lived more than half of her life in Detroit, a far cry from her first horizon. The open sky, the birdsong, the quiet sounds of farms worked by hand, the entirety of the fabric of her young life was absent in Detroit. But she could still taste some of that life, even if that meant writing it on the back of an envelope from the bank.
I don’t mean to idealize an impoverished and difficult life, but childhood marks us permanently, for better and worse. I like to think that she found a certain comfort and continuity in the taste of those peanut-scented pancakes, and perhaps they were even something that she even ate as a child, cleaning her plate before setting out on the long walk to school, books in hand, down dusty roads traveled by school buses with windows that framed only white faces.