By ‘Jack London’ George Rowan, Jr.
Part 2 of 3
Virginia (Jennie) Prentiss, an African American Woman saved Jack London’s life by breast feeding him at birth. He lived with her family, off and on until his teenage years. Jennie Prentiss guided him spiritually, and financed him in his hour of need.
Jack London, born in 1876, was the first American author to earn a million dollars at the turn of the century. He suffered racial taunts because he lived in an African-American household.
After graduation from Cole, the only job he could find was working at the canneries in East Oakland for ten cents an hour on ten hour shifts.
Jack’s big dream was to become an oyster pirate around the San Francisco Bay. A quote from his book “Barleycorn” describes how he sought Jennie Prentiss’ financial support his ventures. He writes, “…So I interviewed with Mammy Jennie, my old nurse, at whose black breast I had suckled. She was more prosperous than my folks. She was nursing sick people for a good wage. Would she lend her ‘white child’ the money? Would she? She did! Three hundred dollars was three years house rent!”
London bought the boat, “Razzle-Dazzle” with a twenty dollar gold piece as a good-faith deposit and became known as the “Prince of the Oyster Pirates”.
Later London became an officer of the law when he joined the fish patrol, inspiring him to write of his adventures in “Tales of the Fish Patrol.” On March 12, 1897, Jack got “gold-rush fever” and left to seek his fortunes in Alaska’s Klondike with the Towns brothers, his childhood African-American friends.
When London became famous he predicted how his publishers, white family and friends, would “whitewash him out of the black community when they get a chance.” He said they would make him out to be some kind of racist for his words. He foretold how few would accept his jokes, familiarity, and identity with the black community. He defended himself by saying he had spoken out publicly for socialism because he wanted equality among the races.
An inscription in a book located in the history room of the Oakland Public Library, Jack London gives a Prentiss testimonial:
“Dear Mammy Jennie:
Well, it took a long time to pay back what I borrowed from you with which to buy the “Razzle Dazzle”. But I learned a lot about life when I sail the “Razzle Dazzle.” And here is loving you, and always lovingly. Your White Pickaninny, Jack London. Glen Ellen, Calif., Sept. 24, 1916.”
Look for the third installment next week!
Special thanks to Eugene Lasartemay and Mary Rudge, authors of the book, “For the Love of Jack London: His Life with Jennie Prentiss – a True Love Story”.