We all called the vendor “the ice cream man,” because, well, he was always a dude and he always satisfied our afternoon cravings for milky confections. The truth is, our characterization was usually off on at least two counts: The operator was often, as best as memory serves, a teenager, not a man. And what he sold — and what we usually craved — were Popsicles, those icy treats that cooled the body and rewarded the brain with a sugar rush. As a boy, my summer high was biting into a bomb pop, trying my best to consume the thing before its sticky red, white and blue rivulets turned my hands into fly paper.
This summer has been unlike any on record, and over the course of it, I’ve tried to reckon with some of our favorite foods of the season: I’ve fantasized about ditching my existential fears and embracing life again through a popular Indian street food. I’ve also contemplated memory and intolerance via two American icons of summer. But as Labor Day rolls into view and we move into fall, I wanted to re-examine one more star of the season: the ice cream truck, the very vehicle that brought so much excitement to my childhood streets when the sun was highest in the sky. To this day, trucks remain visible in neighborhoods across the D.C. region.
The more you research ice cream trucks, the more you embrace the fundamental concept that America exists on many planes with little intersection between them. Black America, for instance, may not share my White suburban affection for ice cream trucks. For them, the trucks may just be another symbol of systemic racism, as in: You can never escape it, not even at an ice cream truck. In fact, depending on which angle you examine it, the ice cream truck can reflect any number of issues facing our country now: not just racism, but violence, crime, turf wars and wage disparity.
In 1958, a reporter for what was then called The Washington Post and Times Herald wrote a story based on a District Education Association report, which showed that ice cream truck drivers earned $4,586 a year, which was nearly $50 more than the “annual pay of a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and five years’ experience.” A decade earlier, ice cream truck drivers apparently relied on their union — yes, they had a union — to secure a pay increase, the mere suggestion of which frustrated The Post’s society columnist in 1947.
“If the union wins,” wrote Mary Van Rensselaer “Molly” Thayer, not exactly fighting for the worker, “cones might cost a quarter and budget-conscious hostesses, dependent on ice-cream desserts, might have to switch to puddings or cut up fruit.”
So much death and violence has occurred around ice cream trucks that it’s hard to catalogue it. Children have been killed by trucks or by cars zipping around the vendors. In 1966, the city of Alexandria considered banning ice cream trucks after the deaths of four children. If not victims, kids have sometimes been witnesses to violent crime, such as the ice cream vendor who was shot to death in 2015 in Frederick, Md., as children looked on. In 1950, a Good Humor man was charged $25, plus court costs, for punching a competitor who dared to vend on the same block in Baltimore.
The most insidious thing about ice cream trucks, though, is their music, tunes that call the kids but annoy the parents searching for a little peace in the afternoon. A number of commonly used songs — “Camptown Races,” “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and “Turkey in the Straw” — were once popular in the traveling minstrel shows of the 19th century. Sung and performed by Whites in blackface, these songs were designed to maintain the false narrative that Blacks were somehow inferior to Whites: in speech, manner and intellect. Millions of White kids, like me back in the day, associate those songs with carefree summer days, oblivious that the music falls much differently on the ears of African Americans.
“It is important to recognize the impact racism has had on our country, even, perhaps especially, when it hides in the nooks and crannies of wholesome Americana,” Theodore R. Johnson III wrote for NPR in 2014. “When black people hear and see those stereotyped presentations of blackness, we are told how America viewed us. And that has lasting, tangible effects. There can be no honest conversation on race issues today without an appreciation for this.”
There is an old-school truck that often stops by the park near our house in Hyattsville. It frequently plays “Camptown Races,” which makes me cringe every time. But there is also a more modern truck that makes the rounds. It’s run by Lamine Kaba, a native of West Africa who has been selling ice cream on the streets for 15 years. His truck sells a broad line of frozen treats, including slushies, sundaes, shaved ice, waffle bowls and milkshakes. He takes credit cards, too.
When I approached Kaba’s truck, it was blasting the Bachata tune, “Hoy Se Bebe,” by Grupo Extra from the Dominican Republic. Years ago, Kaba tells me, he was playing “Turkey in the Straw” at a stop when he was approached by a Black woman who explained the racist history of the song. He immediately changed it. Racism, he says, has no place at an ice cream truck where your customers may be Latinx, Asian or Black.
Short of finding an enlightened vendor such as Kaba or asking your favorite sweetsmobile to add Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA’s catchy new Good Humor jingle to its playlist, where does all this leave us with ice cream trucks? Are they tarnished for good? Can we never again enjoy a bomb pop, an ice cream sandwich, an orange Dreamsicle or a soft serve in a waffle cone?
Trust me, the people fighting for racial justice on the streets of America are not trying to kill the thrill of your frozen confections. Among many things, they’re asking us to reckon with our past and see how the past still lingers, maintaining codes and systems that continue to intimidate and alienate people of color. The protesters want us to have the strength of character to hold two warring thoughts simultaneously: that the very thing that some of us enjoy, even something as trivial as an ice cream truck, can be the same thing that brings pain and sorrow to others. Such a thought, it seems, could bring about something in short supply right now — empathy.