(by Janella Kennedy)
My mother was always warned not to go into other people’s homes unless it was someone very close to her family, and to hang around only with other Blacks. This was Waynesboro, Mississippi, in the 1940s and ‘50s—a dark time of segregation in America. She only attended school with other Black children (referred to as “colored”) all the way through high school. She saw signs around town, on water coolers or the waiting room at the train station, saying “Whites Only,” and she remembers going to the back of a restaurant to place an order for pickup, since Blacks were not allowed to eat there. Black people only went to the home of a white family for labor such as cleaning or cooking, or working on a farm. The way that my mother and many Black people sought to escape the extreme racism of the South was to relocate.
From 1910 to 1970, there was a Great Migration of an estimated six million Blacks from the American South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states. To this day, I have family members all the way from California to Chicago, with some still in the South—for reasons I cannot imagine, they did not want to leave. My mother was part of the movement to New York in the 1960s—a passenger in a carload of Black people seeking better opportunities and a promised sense of worth.
She married and had four sons, but her husband barely supported her and their children, and fathered children outside the marriage. Her friends and relatives were happy when she finally broke ties with him. She landed a job at the telephone company, while her former sister-in-law looked after the kids. She met her second husband (my father) at a party in 1978—a fellow Southerner (from North Carolina) who was a great protector and provider. He not only raised my twin sister and me when we arrived in 1979, but helped raise my older brothers. Their marriage was a blessing in so many ways.
Not all the time in the North was what she imagined, and not all memories of the South were troubling, for instance, the groaning table of desserts served on Sundays and holidays. There were mouth-watering three-layer jelly cakes, sweet potato pies, pound cakes, lemon pies, and German chocolate cakes—all homemade. There were no bakeries in town when my mother was growing up, and they barely went to the grocery store. People raised or grew their own food, and could get by even when things were scarce. Every house had a vegetable garden and a barn or coop for hogs, cows, goats, or chickens.
Ironically, my mother never encountered one of the South’s most famous desserts until she moved to New York, getting the recipe for Red Velvet Cake from another displaced Southerner. She made it from scratch on special occasions all through my childhood—of all my friends, the only one who made this cake. And then she passed the torch to me. Now, in one of life’s amusing reversals, she’ll call and ask, “When are you making Red Velvet Cake?” I’ve been told by many friends that they can tell the cake is made with love and soul, and it doesn’t last even 24 hours. It’s that serious.
Janella Kennedy is a professional voice actor who lives in New York. She can be found on Instagram.
Red Velvet Cake
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 t. cocoa powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 eggs, beaten
2 sticks (8 oz.) salted butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. flavorless cooking oil
1 c. buttermilk
2 t. vanilla extract
2 bottles (1 oz. each) red food coloring
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder baking soda, and salt.
In another bowl, combine eggs, butter, oil, buttermilk, vanilla extract, and food coloring.
Divide batter between two greased 9-in. pans and bake for 30 - 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let cake layers cool on a rack.
1 stick (4 oz.) salted butter
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1 lb. confectioners’ sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. halved or chopped pecans
Beat butter, cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla extract together until smooth.
Place one cake layer on serving plate and spread with frosting.
Place second cake layer on top and spread remaining frosting over top and sides.
Decorate with pecans.