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June 2024
1min read

Phil Patton’s account of the career of Aunt Jemima left out one of her most interesting avatars. Tess Gardella (c. 1898-1950), daughter of an Italian miner, had been making a living singing in New York political rallies and Chinatown nightclubs when she was discovered by Lew Leslie, a producer famous for promoting African-American talent. He persuaded her to don blackface and launched her in vaudeville as “Aunt Jemima.” Her jolly Mammy character became such a hit that she was cast as the black cook Queenie in the original production of Showboat (1927) opposite Joe, played by Jules Bledsoe, a real African-American. Only in America could an Italian performer gain fame as an icon of negritude.

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