Tea Cakes and Black History: Reclaiming a Legacy

As part of our effort to publish content that speaks to and reflects our diverse communities, National Geographic Education is committed to continuously celebrating Black history and amplifying Black leadership and excellence. During Black History Month, we will elevate content and projects we have been developing over the last year, while also debuting fresh content and insights. Today we are sharing some reflections from Ms. Etha Robinson. Thank you for reading.

Educator Etha Robinson wrote this post.

The amount of Black history I learned as a child was next to none. I went to a Catholic school in Mississippi that was run by white Catholic nuns, and there were no Black teachers in that or any other Catholic school. Many Black teachers did not have a college education at the time and therefore couldn’t be admitted as educators in the Catholic school, which required a college education to teach. I remember learning only about Dick and Jane and Spot in elementary school, and even in high school I had limited education about Black history. My parents also had limited education, so they too knew very little about Black history. There was very little information in our communities, because we also couldn’t access the library due to segregation and Jim Crow. I never remember having a new textbook. Instead, we had hand-me-downs from the white school. Of course, I never saw Black or Brown people in those textbooks. I loved reading comic books as a child and those did not have Black characters either. I played with paper dolls, which were all white. The first baby I ever diapered was a white baby, not a Black one. We were surrounded by whiteness. It was hard to see ourselves out in the world.

Ms. Etha Robinson enjoying her tea cake. (Etha Robinson)

It was difficult to immerse ourselves in Black history or culture too because there was a culture of fear. If you joined the NAACP, you would have your lights and gas removed from your car or be told to leave town at sundown. One of my dear friends who did join the NAACP was driven out of town, and I cried as he left because he was harassed. So many people were forced to leave. Fear is such a strong device. We were silenced. Power is sustained over time by inflicting fear, so that was how we lived. Despite being fearful, we smiled and acted as normal as we could. There was enough misery without inflicting additional misery on ourselves. But I never harbored any hatred. I just felt inadequate.

We were no longer on the plantation, but our lives were still wrapped up in the trappings of sharecropping, which included a general sense of just trying to get by. My father grew peanuts and chopped and picked cotton and made 50 cents a week. We had a hog and sold greens and got by as best we could. We survived, but we also thrived in many ways. I thrived by having a good work ethic, and I learned how to relate to other people around me. I learned how to make do and operate under many different kinds of circumstances. I felt that the white people around me didn’t have the same opportunities to build those kinds of skills because of the way they were raised versus how we were. We cleaned up after ourselves, while many of the white children didn’t. They were called Mr. and Ms. even as small children, which gives a false sense of self-importance. Even in adverse circumstances, we learned life skills, and any time you are acquainted with life skills you are thriving. My understanding of what happened to me is how I learn to understand others. By analyzing my experiences and reflecting on myself, I am able to look at others and see their soul and really understand them too. The tea cake has been part of that journey.

Ms. Robinson’s tea cakes on display. (Etha Robinson)

My love of tea cakes began as an homage to my grandmother. I still see her rolling the dough and cutting the tea cakes with a glass jar, and I see myself waiting for them to come out of the oven. Tea cakes were what we had to connect us to our family, our community, and our past. My sisters and I, in the mid-1980s, decided to open a restaurant without really knowing what we were doing. We served soul food, and one of the things we served was a tea cake. Tea cakes were always around in my life. I realized so many of my family members made tea cakes, but they made them at home. We never had them in restaurants, but they were always around. So we decided to bring them into the restaurant. When the restaurant closed, I found someone who would convert my recipe into one that could be produced at a larger scale. Over time, my calling has become to elevate the tea cake to its rightful place as a cultural touchstone and pay homage to our ancestors. The tea cake was a way to savor life and have something sweet even when things were hard.

I first learned about the history of tea cakes from a book called Christmas Gift, by Charlemae Rollins, about how enslaved people were allowed to cook certain things at Christmastime, and one of those recipes was a tea cake. Tea cake recipes were passed by word of mouth because our ancestors couldn’t read or write; they were forbidden from learning, of course. They didn’t have measuring cups or spoons, but they were able to create the recipes by word of mouth with loose measurements. It is speculated they were made to emulate the European tea cake that the white women would serve. We especially integrate the tea cake into celebrations like Juneteenth because it is the celebration of the removal of an obstacle that prevented the humanity of Black Americans from enduring. It is the commemoration of a removal of a shackle that prevented people from becoming their true selves. The tea cake is symbolic of that removal and the future we hope to create.

Over time, when more Black people started reading and writing, they didn’t necessarily write about things like the tea cake, because they were so focused on moving forward and getting a job. When Black people, especially younger people, left the South during the Great Migration, they were so focused on leaving the South and bringing themselves toward future opportunities, but we left so much of our culture behind as a result. Many elders stayed in the South and they had the recipes for things like tea cakes, so for a while, for many, the tea cake was lost. They weren’t sold in stores next to vanilla wafers and things like that. Reintroducing the tea cake is a way to reinvest in ourselves and create a new future that values us and our culture. It is also an example of a practical way to create jobs and stimulate opportunities for Black people.

When I was in the classroom, I didn’t teach a lot of Black history, because I didn’t know a lot. I was a science teacher, and even though there were a lot of Black scientists who made great contributions to science, I didn’t know about and have access to that information. The textbooks were written by a committee of people and selected by the state, so the materials I had access to were limited. In the ’60s and ’70s, more books were published about Black history that were more readily available, but they were not for teachers or students necessarily. I started reading those and adopted those for my classroom as I learned more and more and read those books. I taught biology, but people like George Washington Carver weren’t mentioned in the textbook I was given to teach biology. I realized it wasn’t okay for me or my students to not know about these people and their contributions. As I learned, I taught. I became ravenous about Black history because it’s important for people to know about people like me. There were so many ways of diminishing Black people and their contributions to society. If Black history had been more integrated into all the history, we wouldn’t have had a need for “Black History Month.”

Right now America is hungry for this information. We all want and need to know who we are, where we came from, and where we hope to go together. Lewis Latimer worked with Edison on the light bulb. Jan Ernst Matzeliger invented the shoe-lasting machine, but they wouldn’t give him a patent because of his dark skin. Elijah McCoy, also known as “The Real McCoy,” held 57 U.S. patents. Charles Drew did pioneering work on blood banking and transfusion, but he died because a white hospital wouldn’t admit him. I didn’t know about any of these people or the thousands of others when I was growing up or when I was teaching. There are so many revolutionaries and inventors who are unknown and ignored. There are so many treasures to uncover, and they help all of us be better versions of ourselves if we take the time to learn about them. Uncovering these kinds of treasures is also how we learn to give and empathize with other people. Black history for me has been a fountain that constantly brings forth the water of my ancestors, bathing me with confirmation and joy in my existence and my right to be here on this earth. Why wouldn’t we embrace that every day?

My call to action for educators in classrooms right now is to:

  • Read about Black history and learn something about Black people, especially related to the field you are teaching. You can’t teach something you don’t know anything about.
  • Illustrate the relevance of cultural symbols to your curriculum or the content you are teaching. Food, clothing, shelter, beauty, art, play—these are symbols that cross cultural boundaries and can be integrated into science, art, economics, geography, literature, math, and many other disciplines. Look for ways to connect cultural symbols to the content you teach.
  • Make Black culture and history worthwhile by giving symbols the time, energy, and resources they deserve. People feel pride and self-worth when they see themselves in the world around them. That includes your classroom and what you put in front of students. 
  • Level the playing field. Remove obstacles to equitable learning by making cultural symbols like the tea cake available for students. We do not often spend equitable time on topics relevant to Black culture in schools, which devalues the worth of Black culture, devalues Black contributions to the past, and devalues the future contributions of Black students sitting in classrooms right now.

For more, read the National Geographic article “Reviving the tea cake of Juneteenth parties past.”

Etha Robinson is a lifelong educator and culinary historian who launched Mrs. Robinson’s Tea Cakes and founded the African American Food Association. Her passion for this little cookie is rooted in something much deeper than its southern flavor. Indeed, Ms. Robinson is on a mission to see the tea cake become a symbol of Black excellence and a staple of celebration.

Featured image by Joel Salcido

2 thoughts on “Tea Cakes and Black History: Reclaiming a Legacy

  1. I never knew that or rather stopped o think about this, actually I have more lately. This is the history our children need to learn.

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