Why Aunt Jemima’s Life Matters

Two struggles are ongoing simultaneously: The battle to contain and eradicate the Covid-19 virus, which has taken the lives of so many; and the Black Lives Matter movement, which appears to be making some inroads to challenging 400+ years of systemic racism and injustice.

Perhaps nowhere do these dual dynamics converge more today than in the higher contagion rates, suffering, and death of African-American communities … which tend to be poorer, inadequately equipped, and less healthy to begin with than the predominantly white suburbs.

I am white and privileged, so what right – if any – do I have to comment on this? None! Other than to share my own, personal opinions.

Unquestionably, slavery and its ensuing racism are our shame and national sin. For far too long, we’ve nodded in recognition of the unfairness and inequalities our corporate culture and people of privilege have hoisted on those born with brown or black skin.

Now, it seems that real, across-the-board efforts are being made to bring this darkness to light, exposing national and international complicity in keeping poor people down.

Sometimes, in an effort to overcome and make amends for the errors of our past, however, we can become poor judges and juries of our present. Time and culture have a way of turning such that today we laugh at what, not that long ago, appeared normal and civilized.

In the late 1800s, Missouri newspaper editor Chris L. Rutt decided to name his brand of self-rising flour after “Aunt Jemima,” a song performed by minstrel actors. A former slave named Nancy Green was later hired to portray Aunt Jemima as a “mammy” a caricature that depicts female slaves as smiling, happy homemakers for white families.

Quaker Oats, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, announced that it will retire its Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix, saying the company recognizes that “Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype.” Hours after Quaker Oats announced it was changing its Aunt Jemima logo, Mars, which makes the boxed rice product “Uncle Ben’s,” said it plans to change the product’s “brand identity.”

Uncle Ben’s, a rice and grains company, adopted its brand name and logo in 1946. According to the company’s website, the name “Uncle Ben” is that of a Black Texan rice farmer and the image is of a Black Chicago chef and waiter named Frank Brown.

Syrup and pancake-mix company Mrs. Butterworth’s adopted the personality of “Mrs. Butterworth” in 1961.

For years, the shape of Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup bottles has been a point of contention. “Critics have long associated the shape of the Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle with the mammy, a caricature of black women as subservient to white people,” one critic wrote.

Conagra Brands, parent company of Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup and pancake mixes, released a statement saying that they have started a review of the brand and packaging: “The Mrs. Butterworth’s brand, including its syrup packaging, is intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother. We stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities and we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values,” they said.

Land O’Lakes (butter) recently changed the packaging for its consumer products to remove the image of a Native American woman with a feather in her hair. The change was implemented ahead of the company’s 100th anniversary. The new packaging is very similar to the original, save for the removal of the Native American woman. It also added the phrase “farmer-owned” above the Land O’Lakes name.

Originally a sexy banana, the Chiquita brand’s mascot is now a sexy banana seller. She wears a Carmen-Miranda-esque fruit hat that gives an exotic and idealized image of the tropics. Other companies, too, have appropriated idealized women to represent their iconoclastic brands: Betty Crocker (whose image has been updated many times), Mrs. Paul, Maybelline, Helena Rubenstein, Estee Lauder, and (of course), the bevvy of beauties tantalizing Victoria’s Secret.

Remember the Frito Bandito? Speaking broken English and robbing unsuspecting bystanders, the Frito Bandito was an armed Mexican conman with a disheveled look and a gold tooth. Responding to pressure from the Mexican American Anti-Defamation Committee, the snack-food giant cleaned up Frito Bandito’s look. But combed hair and a friendlier expression didn’t quite cut it. Similarly, a battle rages about inappropriate stereotypes implied or inferred by the original packaging of Eskimo pies.

Now we have Goya products whose Hispanic products don’t need a stereotypical icon—they’re personally endorsed by Ivanka Trump and her father in the White House.

Sometimes, I suspect, we take ourselves and our imaging a bit too seriously. Demarcation must be drawn between “marketing,” which seeks to promote an organization’s products (or services) and “public relations,” whose purpose is to promote the organization itself. Are people demanding that the Quaker Oat Company remove the picture of the Quaker because it is exploiting a religious minority? When and where will it stop?

Separating the brands from their figureheads – if not the stereotypes – has long been the purview of American television.

Amos ‘n’ Andy, an American radio and television sitcom set in Harlem, the historic center of Afro-American culture in New York City, was cancelled by The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network after a national boycott led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Beulah was an American sistuation comedy series that ran on CBS Radio from 1945 to 1954, and on ABC Television from 1950 to 1953. The show is notable for being the first sitcom to star an African American actress, for being ABC TV’s first hit situation comedy, and the first hit TV sitcom without a laugh track. When actress Hattie McDaniel took over the role on November 24, 1947, she earned $1000 a week for the first season, doubled the ratings of the original series and pleased the NAACP which was elated to see a historic first: a black woman as the star of a network radio program. In 1950, Roland Reed Productions adapted the property into a TV situation comedy for ABC, and the Beulah TV show ran for three seasons, Tuesday nights at 7:30 ET from October 3, 1950, to September 22, 1953. Most of the comedy in the series derived from the fact that Beulah, referred to as “the queen of the kitchen,” had the ability to solve problems that her employers couldn’t. Other characters included Beulah’s boyfriend, Bill Jackson, a handyman constantly proposing marriage, and Oriole, a befuddled maid for the family next door. Like the contemporaneous Amos and Andy, Beulah came under attack from many critics, including the NAACP, which accused the show of supporting stereotypical depictions of black characters with Beulah viewed as a stereotypical “mammy” similar to Aunt Jemima.

I often wonder whether whites and blacks viewed Amos and Andy through the same or different lenses. Did white viewers find themselves laughing with or at these simple people? Was Amos and Andy little more than Laurel and Hardy in blackface for them? As for blacks, did they accept the series because it reflected the significance of humor in the African-American experience?

Sanford and Son was a black version of All in the Family. Widower Fred Sanford was as bigoted and ignorant as Archie. His son, Lamont, like Mike, was oriented to middle-class standards. He was embarrassed by his father’s behavior. George, the father in The Jeffersons, although a businessman, fit the same mold as Archie and Fred, namely, loud and bigoted. In the episode “Once a Friend,” George Jefferson learns that his old Army buddy Eddie is now a transgender woman named Edie (Veronica Redd).

Pinky Lee and Billy Crystal in Soap. Paul Linde, a character actor with a distinctively campy and snarky persona that often poked fun at his barely closeted homosexuality, was well known for his roles as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, the befuddled father Harry MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, and as a regular “center square” panelist on The Hollywood Squares. Lynde regularly topped audience polls of most-liked TV stars. Speaking of most liked TV stars, let’s give a nod to Ellen DeGeneris. “The Puppy Episode,” a two-part episode of her Ellen sitcom, detailed lead character Ellen Morgan’s realization that she is a lesbian and her coming out.

What about shows that depicted women and mothers in subservient roles to men: Father Knows Best? Ozzie and Harriet? I Married Joan? My Little Margie? I Love Lucy? December Bride? June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver? Even Charlie’s Angels? Donna Reed was the first show to focus on the mother instead of the father. Later series increasingly empowered women: Police Woman, That Girl, Maude, Murphy Brown, Carole Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Julia, Roseanne, The Golden Girls, Designing Women, Sex and the City, and myriad others.

What about programs with Indians named “Tonto” (fool, dumb, ignorant) as in the Lone Ranger and other gunslinger westerns. On Wagon Train, frontier scout Flint McCullough and a longtime Sioux Indian friend reunite; but trouble is brewing as the Cheyenne are on the warpath and in their way is Fort Hastings, an old flame of his, and her new Army Captain fiancé. The Cisco Kid was an American Western TV series starring Duncan Renaldo in the title role and Leo Carrillo as his jovial sidekick, Pancho. Cisco and Pancho technically were desperados, wanted for unspecified crimes, but instead viewed by the poor as Robin Hood figures who assisted the downtrodden when law enforcement officers proved corrupt or unwilling to help. Sound familiar today?

What stereotype images did The Beverly Hillbillies provide of, well, Appalachian hillbillies and the rich folks who tried to show them a new and better way of living? Meanwhile, white working-class men were reduced to Homer, Archie, Fred, and Ralph.

Chester, the father on The Life of Riley, was continually concocting schemes to help his family. Attempting to fix a school election so his daughter would win, he succeeded only in embarrassing her. His incessant failures were expressed in his closing line for each episode: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

The main characters in The Honeymooners lived in a bare Brooklyn apartment with few amenities. Consequently, husband Ralph was obsessed with success and modest affluence, at which he constantly schemed but invariably failed. He wanted to afford simple comforts such as a television for his wife, Alice. He tried get-rich-quick schemes, such as marketing what he thought was Alice’s homemade sauce, only to learn it was dog food. Alice always quipped, “I told you so.” Alice’s logic and sarcasm invariably bested Ralph in arguments, which typically ended with Ralph saying, in angry frustration, “Just you wait, Alice, one of these days, pow, right in the kisser.”

For that matter, remember the lame-brained antics of policemen Toody and Moldoon on Car 54 Where Are You? featuring the misadventures of two of New York’s finest in the 53rd precinct in the Bronx. Toody, the short, stocky and dim-witted one, either saves the day or messes things up, much to the chagrin of Muldoon, the tall, lanky and smart one.

Regarding the Russians, who can forget Boris and Natasha, foils for Rocky and Bullwinkle? Natasha is a spy for the fictional country of Pottsylvania, and takes orders from the nation’s leader, Fearless Leader. Natasha usually serves as an accomplice to fellow spy Boris Badenov.

And Howdy Doody, that quintessential children’s favorite featuring such characters as Buffalo Bob Smith, Princess SummerFall WinterSpring Chief Thunderthud, Clarabell, and Mister Bluster.

In his book Television in Black-and-White America: Race and National Identity (University Press of Kansas), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Alan Nadel argues that the medium in the 1950s and ’60s deepened racial divisions by offering an intentionally skewed version of reality.

It was, quite literally, a whitewash: “Television was the place where one found definitively normal families,” Nadel writes, “and no black children were to be found in that excessively normal world.”

Perhaps the 1998 movie Pleasantville best sums up our love-hate relationship with these TV shows from our formative years.

David Wagner is a Nineties kid with a Fifties addiction. He’s hooked on reruns of a classic television show called “Pleasantville,” set in a simple place where everyone is swell and perky, “confrontation” is a dirty word and life is pleasingly pleasant. Addicted to this utopian world, David immerses himself in “Pleasantville” as an innocent escape from the trouble-plagued real world that he must share with his ultra-hip, totally popular twin sister, Jennifer. But one evening, life takes a bizarre twist when a peculiar repairman gives him a strange remote control, which zaps David and his sister straight into Pleasantville. All the repressed desires of life in the Fifties begin to boil up through the people of Pleasantville, changing their lives in strange and wonderful ways that none of them had even dared to dream of, until they were visited by two kids from the real world.

In these increasingly difficult times, where we are confronting an out-of-control virus and our ghosts from the past, a simple place where everyone is swell and perky, confrontation is a dirty word, and life is pleasingly pleasant, the simple black-and-white of our past – no matter how stereotyped or distorted – gives us some small comfort.

I am not talking about statues or monuments purposefully built to honor and memorialize those who, historically, have done us wrong.

We can’t erase history … but we can learn from — and appreciate — its social dimensions and cultural context.

Which is why Black Lives Matter. And Brown. Asians and Immigrants, as well.

Because we still have a lot to learn!

Rev. Bruce H. Joffe, Ph.D., is a retired professor and pastor probing the intersections of media, religion, gender, international living, and allied cultural norms.

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