Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The real black Frank White

Nope it wasn't Biggie and he wasn't the King of New York. (in case you're not familiar Christopher Wallace aka Notorious B.I.G also went by the nickname Frank White after the character in the movie King of New York)

Read this yahoo excerpt:
A man widely believed to be the model for the smiling chef on Cream of Wheat boxes finally has a grave marker bearing his name.

Frank L. White died in 1938, and until this week, his grave in Woodlawn Cemetery bore only a tiny concrete marker with no name. ..........He discovered that White was born about 1867 in Barbados, came to the U.S. in 1875 and became a citizen in 1890.

So wait you mean the Cream of Wheat man was bajan? Good for him, way to go!

But you know as with all discoveries this just led to more and more questions since that article really didn't tell us too much about the man.

Anyway me and my friend Bajansistren end up having a serious discussion as to who this Frank White fella really was and after some digging and research we come up with a fictional account of the late great Frank White and well since I already big up Uncle Ben and he wasn't bajan well why not Mr Cream of Wheat right?

The account is as follows:

Frank Lionel White also known as Frankie or Sprats was born in Barbados on May 21st 1867. The second son of Ernesta and Rufus White of Eagle Hall Cross Roads, Frank was a precocious child, or to be more specific and bajan; he did real, real hardears!

Times were tough for the White household as Rufus was without a trade, having been let go from several apprenticeship positions for playing the fool on the job, and now refused to work in the cane fields claiming "he really couldn't deal with all dat hard work and sweating up heself". Meanwhile poor Ernesta kept on getting pregnant year after year. Frank was the fifth child of that union.

Rufus was a dreamer. Big dreamer. He had nuff talk about opening his own business and becoming rich enough to buy 40 acres of land that he could pass on to his offspring. He was however getting desperate as the bajan landscape didn't seem to offer him enough scope to advance as a black man with limited skills.

So Rufus decided to seek his fortune in America! Ernesta protested but given the choice between raising 5 children on her own in Barbados or following Rufus and his crazy scheme to New York she followed.

In America, New York to be exact, times were rough. What with the acclimatisation to big city life and the cold, the entire family regretted the move initially. People there were strange and it was every man jack for himself. They found it especially difficult to adjust to the coldness of the people there. In Barbados, they were accustomed to friendly neighbours who might even offer them an extra breadfruit or ground provisions if they could spare it but in New York the next door neighbour might not even respond to something as simple as a call of good marning.

It was quite eye opening for the White family. ..........

Anyway let me fast forward to the section about Frank and the Cream of Wheat business.

Bajan historians have long pondered and asked (well long as in since last week when we find out the Cream of Wheat man was bajan) the question why wasn't more known about Frank and his exploits? It was especially difficult for black folks to get ahead back then so a man of such importance back in that day should have been feted and honored. It wasn't like Black people was on the cover of every box of food back then ya kno!. Uncle Ben was still a lad feeding rice grains to chickens in he mudda back yard and Aunt Jemima was simply Jemima, then a half foolishy girl, still knocking around the village waiting for her obzocky sister Clotilda to have some children so somebody would call she auntie.

So why wasn't Frank well known? I mean if his story had been told earlier who knows he could have even made the Bajan Heroes list.

Numerous theories abound.

Some have speculated that Frank was actually not the man on the cover of the Cream of Wheat box but extensive research and comparison of other known photos of Frank to the Cream of Wheat box seem to conclusively prove that he is in fact the model for that image.

Many other have speculated that Frank was actually not a bajan but had been mistaken for one when an inquisitive newspaper journalist from the Chicago Herald overheard him using the word "pieca poppit" not knowing that Frank had picked up that phrase as well as others such as "ruff dry", "poo sharking" and "backtofront" from an ex girlfriend in New York, Clemantina Small originally from Chimboraza in St Joseph, Barbados.

There was also a theory floating around which had recently gained steam that Frank had been a field hand who had run away from the initial farm labor program and was illegal in the U.S but our research showed that this was false as there is extensive proof to show that he had indeed arrived in 1875 with Rufus, Ernesta and four siblings.

Well we are now able to put all the rumor and speculation to rest. Here is the true story!

After extensive digging of our own we are proud to report that Frank was indeed bajan. Our research however exposed the fact that Mr White sadly was an illegal immigrant in the US. His father, Rufus, had simply told authorities that they were on a shopping trip to New York and the family had never left after their two week visitors visa was up, moving from residence to residence to avoid immigration authorities.

When this revelation about the White family was announced speculation abounded that the good folk at Cream of Wheat in an act of generosity has sponsored Frank for his Green card. Sadly this is not true and Frank spent all of his days in the US as an illegal alien.

How did Frank end up on the cover of the Cream of Wheat box you ask? Well the truth of the matter is that Frank had unwittingly allowed his image to be captured by a roadside artist not knowing his plans for the drawings. After later asking and finding out what the artist's plans were a terrified Frank had pleaded with one Abraham S Johnson, the freelance artist working on behalf of Cream of Wheat to not submit his image as he didn't want it to become well known.

Johnson, a reasonable man, agreed to Frank's request and instead submitted another image, that of one Phillip Augustus Monroe (PAM), a white Anglo Saxon from Lower Manhattan to the company for publishing but upper management were not too keen on Monroe's look owing to the lazy eye which Johnson's image had maybe a bit too accurately captured.

Archives do show that a few hundred boxes were created with Monroe's image on the cover but the company horrified at the look shipped them all off to feed troops stationed in East Borneo. So few of the PAM boxes remain that some believe there are a myth. However serious cereal box collectors know that those boxes did exist and PAM boxes are considered an extremely rare and valuable collectible today.

So Johnson still trying to make some money and salvage something out of the debacle of the PAM boxes reneged on his word to Frank and eventually submitted his image. It was universally loved by the company and Frank White's image became synonymous with the Cream of Wheat brand in a short space of time.

In light of this Frank beat a hasty retreat after that disappearing for years at a time reappearing every now and then with a beard or a moustache or anything that would not cause him to be directly identified with the Cream of Wheat man.

There is more about how Frank avoided the immigration authorities but I wont go into it here.

These revelations about Mr Frank White all make sense though because historians were always bothered by certain details of the story. They were always flummoxed and puzzled as to what kind of Bajan would achieve an honour like being on the cover of the Cream of Wheat box and not shout down the whole world to let them know he had arrived. It just did not make any sort of sense given what bajan people are like. This was one of the reasons that had given rise to the speculation that Frank wasn't bajan.

No bajans like to talk and big up themselves nuff. And even if Frank hadn't used his new found celebrity to pick up girls or held some sort of big fete in celebration at the very least his proud mother Ernesta would have written a letter or two home to some of the relations to let them know that lil hardears Frank turn into a somebody and she was real, real proud! From there it would only have been a matter of time before family like third cousin twice removed Gerald Carter was pontificating on Frank's achievements at a local rum shop in an attempt to get a free white rum or two from some of the regulars and so on and so on until Frank's fame would have been known island wide.

No Frank was clearly hiding something and that is why his story went unknown for so many years. He was in fact on the run from immigration and he truly regretted letting Johnson take that image for the Cream of Wheat box for the rest of his life.

Anyway if you are anxious to learn more about Frank L White and other stalwarts of the cereal business please buy my upcoming text Cream of Wheat, Rice Pudding and Corn Meal Pap - Ma wha fa eat available at Chapters, Barnes & Nobles and other bookstores near you.


BajanSistren said...

Bravo! You gave Rufus and Ernesta boy a proper decent sending off. May he Rest In Peace.

Dutch Pot said...

Insightful and interesting!!! I was reading a campaign to petition against the use of the Aunt Jemima image but I needed to do my own research to see the origins. Apparently it reinforces the stereotype of black women as mammies working in the kitchens as slaves. The image was initially a blackface and very offputting - but has been upgraded to looking more "presentable" these days.

Luke Cage said...

Brother J, you knocked that post out of the box. Great work on the research man. Although I was a little ticked at you for stopping at the immigration part. The story and history got too good to just stop there.

But you also offered alternative methods of info to find out more if interested. Now I'm going to show people how smart I am about the real "Frank White." By the way, I have a cousin that's missing somewhere in the U.S., maybe you and your Bajansistren can give a brotha a hand locating her...? Maybe?

lo said...

dat story sound like it coming from a man dat don't like cream-a-wheat. I would bet my school tie (de one that I neaten down and press down to a shine). That jDid doth not like cream-a-wheat.

My man cream-a-wheat is one of natures magical potions. You could mix that thing thin or thick. Drink it from a glass, yuh favorite cup, or a bowl. And if yuh licrish yuh could eat it from a pirates dish.

Cream-a-wheat is so versatile dat you could sprinkle on sugar, salt, chocolate, lil icing sugar if yuh got any save way in de freezer from de last bajan wedding yuh went to. Yuh could even sprinkle spices or fruit pun top.

How you can't like cream-a-wheat.

You could even test a girl tuh see if she could cook by asking she tuh mek lil cream-a-wheat. Yuh could even leh she read de direktions cause it aint gine mek nuh difference. If she aint got nuh care in she heart fuh you and yuh hungry belly dah cream-a-wheat gine turn out lumpier dan my grandmother dumplin soup man and you gine be chewing like yuh eating salt bread.

I remember eating cream-a-wheat before bed, for breakfast, when yuh sick, when yuh mudduh aint home and yuh cant cook, (or yuh wife), I even bring dat ting fuh lunch one time at work.

As bajans cream-a-wheat is we ting and it is only propa dat de cream-a-wheat man was a bajan.

I would not be surprise to hear dat de reason frankie face was pun de box was because he uses to eat de most cream-a-wheat in new york!


Miz JJ said...

Very interesting. I did not know half of that stuff.

Abeni said...

Nice reading..I never knew the Cream of wheat man was Baje.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no knowledge of that. Good post.

princessdominique said...

I loved that post. Informative. I learn something new every day, the place and person changes but the learning comes regardless.

Lola Gets said...

@dutch pot
I am a historian, and I once curated an exhibit on exploitative Black icons. Aunt Jemima was a real Black woman. She was a former slave who made pancakes for the company at one of the World Fairs in the States. The company wanted an advertising campaign that reminded consumers of the maternal "mammy" figure, and that woman slinging pancakes at the world fair did just that! After she died, the company hired two other women as represetatives, but if there were no public events (like the world fair) they didnt really need them, so they just used the printed image.

Perhaps some people performed an "Aunt Jemima" character in blackface, but that wasnt the official image of the pancake/syrup company.

I really enjoyed this post, though! I didnt know you had this in you JDid, good going!

northweezy said...

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