Mrs. Robinson’s Tea Cakes

Physical objects are used for a lot of reasons, such as to complete tasks, entertain the user, or simply for aesthetics. Most people wouldn’t think too much about analyzing these items, but several classes in my educational career taught me that even some of the most discrete objects, like walls, can be analyzed. Objects that can be used for tasks or entertainment are easier to analyze, and that usually comes in the form of in depth performance reviews. Aesthetic items, though, are harder to analyze since most people don’t think of them as sending any kind of message. Decorations are used to make the decorated area look more inviting or fitting for an occasion, and they usually do a lot to show the personality of the decorator. If there is an event, decorations also help to set the tone, such as formality or interactivity with the environment.

This week, I want to analyze an object that is more of a symbol than something to be analyzed in and of itself. Etha Robinson wrote a post for National Geographic called Tea Cakes and Black History: Reclaiming a Legacy where she discusses the cultural significance of tea cakes. She explains how, through her experiences growing up in a white world, the tea cake has come to be a symbol of her heritage. For this post, I’m going to highlight a little bit of her story as well as what she talks about in her post. 

Etha Robinson

Robinson was born in Mississippi and attended a Catholic school. She shares that, as she was growing up, she didn’t see any representation of her own dark skin in books or the dolls she played with. After school, her sisters opened a restaurant, where they served soul food and tea cakes. The tea cakes were an unusual menu item because, according to Robinson, they were a private thing among her Black family and community members. Everyone made them, but they made them at home. 

When they became a hit, Robinson started to learn more about their history–how they were an oral recipe passed among slaves for a while, as they were one of the only recipes they were allowed to make for themselves around Christmastime–and she learned enough that raising the tea cake to its rightful place became her mission. She also spent time as a science teacher in the Los Angeles area, but her passion remained with the tea cake after she retired.

Need for Knowledge

Robinson’s post is for National Geographic’s education blog, so a lot of what she’s talking about is framing the tea cake in light of her own experiences with learning Black history. For Robinson, this might be even more important than for anyone else, because she was learning more than just the history of her country and community; she was learning about her heritage

That’s not to say it isn’t important for us to learn about people like Lewis Latimer and Charles Drew, because it is. She discusses the struggle of accessing information about Black history and the way that ignoring the contributions of Black scientists–in her case–creates gaps in the progression of fields like biology and electricity. As she sums it up, the fact that these Black contributors were ignored in the field’s mainstream history is what has created the need for the month we’re discussing here: “If Black history had been more integrated into all the history, we wouldn’t have had a need for ‘Black History Month.’” Instead, though, Robinson shows us that for some the fight to celebrate and educate during February isn’t just about educating non-Black people but about giving members of the Black community information about their own cultural heritage.

Conclusion

“If Black history had been more integrated into all the history, we wouldn’t have had a need for ‘Black History Month.’” Etha Robinson is a Black culinary historian who has made it her mission to revitalize the popularity and knowledge about the tea cake and its traditional place in Black culture. In the process of learning about and promoting tea cakes, she shares in a blog post that she was also a long time educator who had to dig up information about important Black contributors in the field of science to share with her students and feel seen in the field. After retiring, she is working even harder to promote knowledge about the significance and history of tea cakes.

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