Thursday, June 18, 2020

Aunt Jemima's Retiring

     And it's about damn time.  The company that owns the brand is retiring the image and the name this autumn.  Oh, they tried to update her; in recent years, the "Aunt Jemima" shown on the products is certainly no nanny/cook -- to me, she looks like a Home Ec teacher, and smile notwithstanding, one who mostly hands out C grades unless you really apply yourself.  Nevertheless, the original image was indeed a minstrel-show "Mammy."

     The first woman who portrayed Aunt Jemima was Chicagoan Nancy Green, an ex-slave hired by the R. T. Davis Milling Company to demonstrate their pancake mix at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.  She worked for the company in that role for until her death in 1923.  She used the income to help start a church and worked to advocate for greater opportunities for African-Americans.  So remember her when you see the label, a woman of her times, making the best of her situation.  The real smiling, friendly Nancy Green was a woman with aspirations who made a positive difference, not someone who kept quiet in the kitchen flipping flapjacks.

     The pancake mix itself isn't going anywhere, so don't write me, bewailing that "they're taking my favorite pancakes away."  That's not so. 

     No word (as I write this on Wednesday) on Uncle Ben of the famous (and tasty!) converted rice; recent ads show the character as Chairman of the Board and his label portrayal (and the current origin story) has been as a successful rice farmer.  I'm not sure if he'll get to stick around, but he seems like the kind of guy who'd already be hanging out with Chef Boyardee and Betty Crocker, so...maybe.  On the other hand, "Uncle" has some seriously unfortunate associations, so who knows.

     Alas, the chef on Cream of Wheat wasn't treated so well, especially early on.  The image is based on a real-life chef, Frank L. White, who died in 1938.  But the company named their character "Rastus" and a lot of the early ads were just as cringeworthy and stereotypical as you might expect.  Over time, the chef started to be portrayed as the chef (and presumably manager) of the "Cream of Wheat Inn," but given the background, I won't be surprised if we find ourselves saying farewell to him, too.  (But not the product, I hope!  It's good stuff -- hot cereal was a breakfast staple when I was growing up, from Indiana's own Coco Wheats to Ralston whole wheat cereal and Cream of Wheat.  They're all still wintertime comfort for for me.)

     "Mrs. Butterworth?"  Oh, dear.  See Aunt Jemima?  Okay, now imagine you based her on Butterfly McQueen.  Because the syrup company did.  The actress wasn't thrilled about playing stereotyped roles and eventually gave up acting in Hollywood, but Mrs. Butterworth is another "mammy" character and the clock is probably ticking.

     The problem with removing harmful stereotypes is that you risk erasing representation altogether.  Who's going to step up and sit with Tony the Tiger and the Michelin Man?  Better be somebody, but who, besides the athletes on Wheaties boxes?  The solution to that, I haven't got.

     Update: I have already had comments from people who did not read past the headline and first sentence.  I did my homework -- and I provided  links.  If you just showed up and skimmed, your (mostly meme-based and not entirely factual) comments aren't going to be published.

1 comment:

RandyGC said...

Can't find the link right now, but saw a couple of articles stating that the parent company is going to re-do the Uncle Ben's rice branding as well.

I used the Mrs Butterworth's bottles in the 70's to make flower vases for my Grandmothers and Aunts using model paints to put different colored dresses and aprons on her. Being in small town Iowa and never having heard of Butterfly McQueen (or having seen Gone With The Wind as it was never on the one TV station we received) I used Testor's Flesh* colored paint for her face and hands.

They were cheap and (for me) easy gifts that seemed to be appreciated. At least they were displayed in the various house along side other "art" projects from cousins and grand kids.

*I haven't looked lately at scale plastic models or paints, but I wonder how the current environment affects naming the paints. The "flesh" color worked well when doing a diorama of WWII Wehrmacht panzers, not so much for one about the Red Ball Express.