By MARSHA MERCER
Twenty years into the 21st century, it finally dawned on major American corporations they could no longer use mascots of black servitude to sell food.
Aunt Jemima, a staple of American kitchens since 1889, and Uncle Ben, a staple since 1946, are stepping away from the stove. Mrs. Butterworth and Cream of Wheat are facing makeovers, at least.
As symbols go, these friendly ambassadors of cookery commerce may seem benign.
They do not carry the emotional weight of the Confederate flag now banned by Nascar or the physical heft of massive bronze Confederate memorials targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters.
But in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, America is rooting out the racist origins of our popular culture.
“Gone with the Wind” is getting an introduction that will put into historical context the 1939 film’s rampant racial stereotypes and nostalgia for “a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South.”
The rethinking now has reached the heart of the home, the kitchen.
Aunt Jemima was inspired by a minstrel show song “Old Aunt Jemima,” often sung by white men in blackface. The first Aunt Jemima was a former slave, hired to sing and make pancakes from the new packaged mix at the 1893 world’s fair.
Famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth helped create Aunt Jemima’s warm persona in the early 1920s by painting her for magazine ads as a “mammy” figure, evoking the beloved black women who took care of white children on the plantation.
Unbelievably to us, the U.S. Senate in 1923 approved a plan by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to build a “Monument to Faithful Colored Mammies of the South” in Washington.
One design showed an elderly black woman holding a white child while her own children at her feet sought her attention. African Americans objected strenuously, and the monument never materialized.
Historian Maurice M. Manring titled his 1998 book on Aunt Jemima “Slave in a Box,” saying she conjured romantic images not only of food but of the plantation’s social hierarchy.
Even honorary titles reflected Jim Crow racism. White people called blacks “Aunt” and “Uncle” because they would not call them “Mr.” and “Mrs.”
Aunt Jemima typically was overweight and wore a kerchief. In a 1989 makeover, she lost the kerchief and gained pearl earrings and a lace collar.
For many years, blacks have urged Aunt Jemima’s retirement. A 2015 oped in The New York Times by Riché Richardson, a Cornell University professor, asked: “Can We Please, Finally, Get Rid of `Aunt Jemima’”?
But it took a widely viewed TikTok video – “How to Make a Non-Racist Breakfast,” by pouring Aunt Jemima pancake mix down the sink – to prompt Quaker Foods of North America, the division of PepsiCo that owns the brand, to admit the obvious.
“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, chief marketing officer, said in a statement Wednesday, so the company is retiring Aunt Jemima’s name and image.
Hours later, Mars Inc., parent company of Uncle Ben’s rice, announced it was “evaluating all possibilities” regarding Uncle Ben’s image, which has evolved into that of an older black man in a collared shirt.
Conagra Brands announced “a complete brand and packaging review” of Mrs. Butterworth, whose syrups come in a bottle with a matronly figure reportedly modeled on Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen, who played the young mammy “Prissy” in “Gone With the Wind.”
The voice of Mrs. Butterworth in early TV ads was that of Hope Summers, a white actress who played Clara Edwards, Aunt Bee’s friend on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“The Mrs. Butterworth’s brand, including its syrup packaging, is intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother,” Conagra’s statement said. “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.”
Then, B&G Foods Inc., parent company of Cream of Wheat, launched an immediate review of its packaging, which features a smiling black man in a white chef’s uniform. He used to be called “Rastus,” although his name, a racial slur, is nowhere on the current website.
Cleaning the kitchen of demeaning racial stereotypes is a good step forward. Racism is so insidious even the smallest symbols leave the sour taste of inequality. Good-bye and good riddance. We’ll all be better off.
©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.