Every once in a while, I have the chance to talk with people who really remind me why I’m fighting so hard for my Oreodom. I stumbled across my latest interview quite by accident.
I was researching famous black actor Steppin Fetchit. Mr. Fetchit changed the course of life for African Americans everywhere by condoning what ruling class performers were already doing in minstrel shows by becoming a minstrel who came already blackfaced. Instead of presenting himself as an intelligent, upwardly mobile human, he presented himself as a shuffling, idiotic, infantile man. And in so doing, became the first African American millionaire.
His legacy forever altered the way of colors were seen on TV.
Naturally, this is the kind of material a good Oreo should watch over and over again just to keep the self loathing fresh and on hand.
When I googled “step n fetch”–the term that was ultimately derived from his name to describe a certain type of behavior and persona, I found a variety of businesses who use the name.
The first one I was able to contact was Step N Fetch Um Grocery in a small town in Oklahoma.
Because it’s rare to find a business who so blatantly reminds its customer base what the average Oreo is fighting against, I knew I had to speak to the owner to thank him for justifying my fight. Below is the transcript of some of the highlights of the conversation.
OW: …I actually found your business because I was looking for some information on the actor Stepin Fetchit. Do you know that is?
Dale: Mmm, no. I never…I heard about it, but I don’t know–
OW: –Who he is?
Dale: Ahh, I don’t know any details on it. I just…Somebody has–they’ve asked several times and I tell them “I don’t know.”
OW: Oh really? People have asked about it before? What do they say?
Dale: They just asked me if I come up with that name, I say “no.”
Dale then explained to me that the name was actually created by his business partner who unfortunately passed away quite some time ago. Dale bought the business from his partner’s wife and kept the store and the namesake.
OW: Have you ever looked up who Stepin Fetchit is?
Dale: Mmm, no. In fact, though, last year, one of the school kids, I guess they were studying something in school and they asked me about it.
OW: You guys should look up the actor sometime, though, he’s really interesting. He was a black actor in the first part of last century, which was really groundbreaking at the time. But he kind of created the sort of character that a lot of black characters are in movies today. He was kinda dumb and very much like “yes, missa, lemme do that fo’ ya missa,” like evoked that kind of persona. Which, I don’t know. I’ve heard that some people get offended by that. Have you heard that?
Dale: Yeah. I’ve heard some of it. It’s kinda like …and I don’t know if you remember this or not, but do you remember Sidney Poitier, he played with–he was the first black cowboy I’d ever seen.
OW: What was he like?
Dale: He was great. He was a real good actor.
OW: Sidney Poiter was an amazing actor. Did he play the same kind of character that Stepin Fetchit did? Like the kind of dumb guy?
Dale: No, he played one of the main characters.
OW: That’s great. Good thing you didn’t name your business after Sidney. That would have been an awkward homage.
We talked movies for a bit, before returning to the topic at hand.
Dale: It’s interesting that people bring this up every once in a while. Evidentially, it must be back in the history books.
OW: Are they upset or bothered?
Dale: No, they just ask about it and I tell them my partner made it up.
OW: Was your partner black by any chance?
Dale: No. He was from down eastern Oklahoma.
OW: When people ask about the business name, are they upset or concerned or do they like it?
Dale: I had one lady who said “Well, that’s kinda offensive.” I said “Well, I dunno. Not that I know of.”
OW: She asked if you thought it was offensive and you said you didn’t know.
Dale: Yeah, it was somebody from out of town. It wasn’t nobody–
OW: Oh, she wasn’t from your town?
Dale: No. Huh-uh.
OW: Was she black?
Dale: Uh, she was part. But she was asking me about this and I said “I don’t know!”
OW: Well, I mean, why would you konw. And why would you go look it up? That’s a lot of time to take.
Dale: Well, a lot of people get curious on stuff like that. I’m not a great big history buff. It doesn’t concern what we’re going through. If it doesn’t affect us now, I don’t really worry about it. That was 40 or 50 years ago.
OW: Yeah, stuff that happened 40 or 50 years ago does not affect what’s going on today.
Dale: It’s like my ancestors. They came over here from Switzerland.
OW: I love skiing. Do you get to go skiing very much?
Dale: My granddad used to talk about fighting over horse biscuits in the street.
OW: Horse biscuits?
Dale: Horse poop.
OW: Oh! Those kinds of horse biscuits.
Dale: They had to use it for burning over there. I thought that was kind of hard to believe, but like this other stuff, it doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on today.
OW: That does sound like the same issue as Stepin Fetchit’s dubious legacy.
Dale: Yeah, because we don’t have to put up with it.
OW: Yeah, don’t have to put up with fighting for fuel in the streets. Don’t have to put up with terrible images of black people in movies. It’s all better.
Dale went on to tell me how he grew up mostly around Native Americans. He even had a black friend in high school.
OW: So, because you grew up around so many minorities, do you feel a connection to the cultures?
Dale: Oh yes! They had the same problems that we did.
OW: Exactly the same problems.
Now, I understood. That connection that he so proudly proclaimed clearly explained why he didn’t waste any time figuring out if the name of his business was offensive or at the very least, outdated.
OW: Now, are there very many people of color in your town?
Dale: I’ve got one sitting right here.
OW: Well, congratulations.
Dale: Do you want to talk to him?
And that’s when the conversation became terrifying. Not just because I was chatting with another of color–if any other Oreos would have seen me, I’d be chastised for sure, but because of what he told me mere second into the conversation.
OW: I’m a little intrigued by the grocery store Step N Fetch Um. Are you a regular here?
RBP: Oh yes.
OW: Do you like the name?
RBP: Yeah! Ain’t nothing wrong with this name. We still have to step and fetch it!
Well, technically not since 1865, but who’s counting?
OW: Do you know the actor Stepin Fetchit?
RBP: I know all that, but if you leave the name alone, it’ll be okay.
OW: Did you like his work? Did you think he was funny?
RBP: Yeah, he was funny.
OW: So you’ve seen very many of his movies.
RBP: I’ve seen practially all of them.
So I guess Tyler Perry is on to something, after all.
OW: Well, thank you. I am off to go shine some shoes and serve some lunch, I will talk to you guys later.
RBP: Okay, bye.
Please enjoy the following clip of Stepin in action. (Just in case it’s not clear, Step is the lazy man in bed who can’t get up, is fascinated by the telephone, can barely get his words out, and happily admits to being 11 months behind on rent)