One of the most iconic advertising images of the twentieth century is Aunt Jemima, and recently the heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington, just two of the women whose portraits were used as the “face” of the brand, are suing Quaker Oats for $2 billion and future revenues, claiming that not only did Green and Harrington portray Aunt Jemima, they were influential in shaping the recipe. Attorneys for Quaker Oats are saying “hold on a minute,” Aunt Jemima might be the brand, but she was “never real.”
Yes and no.
The “biography” of Aunt Jemima was the creation of the J. Walter Thompson Agency based in New York. More specifically, it was the creation of James Webb Young, a native of Covington, Kentucky. According to internal documents of the agency, the story of Aunt Jemima was that she came from Louisiana. So, yes, the story is a creation.
Yet it is also true that Nancy Green, then a Chicago domestic, portrayed “Aunt Jemima” at the 1893 World’s Fair and made a career of doing so for nearly twenty years after the fair. More to the point, Green’s face was, in fact, the first image of Aunt Jemima to appear on the pancake box. The Thompson Agency hired Arthur Burdette Frost, better known for his illustrations of Uncle Remus tales, to paint Green’s portrait.
If she contributed to the recipe, we may never know, but we do know that white women often took their maids’ recipes and passed them off as their own, a tradition that even Paula Deen maintained when she co-opted recipes from Dora Charles, a black woman who had worked in Deen’s Savannah restaurant for years.
It is true that several black women portrayed Aunt Jemima at various state fairs during the early decades of the twentieth century. They greatly assisted the brand by lending an authenticity to the product as being a particularly “southern” recipe. This was in keeping with the character created by the Thompson Agency, whose story was that Aunt Jemima had been a slave and that she created the recipe that brought her such fame that it caused jealousy among other mammies.
But on radio, it was a different story. In a short program called Aunt Jemima Radio, which ran from 1930 to about 1942, she was portayed by several white women who were essentially doing a radio minstrel act. One of those women was Tess Gardella, an Italian-American actress from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Gardella had played “Queenie” in the stage version of Show Boat, and she parlayed that experience into performing as Aunt Jemima on the radio. She also played Aunt Jemima in a film short. It is even on her gravestone.
Tess Gardella is also interesting because she filed a lawsuit against NBC for allowing an “imposter to broadcast as ‘Aunt Jemima,’ when as a matter of fact she [Gardella] had been using that name for years on stage and air.” The actress further claimed that she had the right to use the name “by virtue of authority from the Quaker Oats Company.” She won her lawsuit and nearly $116,000 in damages.
The heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington may have a difficult time in the courts because, unlike Gardella, they did not have a contract. Still, their lawsuit brings into sharp relief the ways American companies have profited by using images of African Americans to brand their products.
*Some of the ideas expressed in this post are drawn from Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011), 40-41.
During his State of the Union address in January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson unveiled his plans to address the nation’s poverty, which then hovered at a rate of nineteen percent. The major legislative initiatives in what became known as the War on Poverty included the Food Stamp Act, the Social Security Act (which created Medicare and Medicaid), and the Economic Opportunity Act (which created Job Corps and the Volunteers in Service to America programs). This year marks the 50th anniversary of War on Poverty and, as with most historical anniversaries, both the media and scholars have weighed in with critiques and analyses of its legacy, often leading to statements about how we, as a nation, have lost the war on poverty.
But will any of it make a difference in how we view those in poverty? And will we continue to dismiss the real struggles of the men, women, and children living in poverty with biased and uninformed assumptions about their bad decisions, their alleged laziness, or their desire to live off the government?
Very often, stories and images of Appalachia are used to illustrate the nation’s poverty. This was the case in the 1960s and it’s still this way today. The New York Times does so with regularity. (See, for example, this article or this one.)
But hope abounds.
There’s a terrific documentary photography project called Looking at Appalachia that operates from a different set of assumptions. Poverty is not just about statistics, it’s about human beings. More than that, poverty is not always a choice. And as for Appalachia, despite its issues with poverty, it is also home. The images from this project reflect the beauty of the landscape and the people without succumbing to stereotype. And here is where art makes a difference.
“Many of the War on Poverty photographs, whether intentional or not, became a visual definition of Appalachia. These images have often drawn from the poorest areas and people to gain support for the intended cause, but unjustly came to represent the entirety of the region while simultaneously perpetuating stereotypes.”
The project’s director, Roger May, is a documentary photographer from the Tug Valley region of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. I asked Roger about how his project might help to dispel these stereotypes:
“Well, it’s important to realize that this project can’t or won’t single-handedly dispel decades worth of stacked myths and stereotypes. We all know how powerful images can be. We certainly didn’t get here overnight, so I don’t think we’ll reverse course that quickly either. What I like about the idea of this project is that it’s purpose isn’t to negate those pictures and ideas, but rather hopefully it’ll dilute them to a point that folks who both are, and aren’t, familiar with Appalachia will have another frame of reference for people and place. I see these photographs as added voices to a conversation that started well before the War on Poverty was declared and ones that’ll be around for a long while to come. We can’t ignore stereotypes and at the same time, we can’t deny elements of truth in them. What we can do is keep our hands to the plow of reminding folks that people are people no matter where you go. If we’re collectively willing to sit a while, listen, and try to understand on an individual level, we might surprise ourselves with what we find.”
And what has been the impact of this project so far?
“The impact I’ve noticed from the project so far has been positive. Folks seem to be generally excited about Appalachia being shown in a different light, a more modern take on a place we all tend to see stuck in the past. Appalachia is one of those places that’s easy to romanticize and quite often the “othering” that happens there is, I think, somewhat self-induced. That’s really OK, but I think it’s important to pursue and embrace change, whatever that might look like. Traditions don’t have to be sacrificed for modernity, but let’s be truthful in our representations.”
Aside from the project’s website, what are your plans for extending the life of the project?
“In early 2015, I’ll be working with the project’s editorial and advisory boards to work through the online images and make selections for print. We’ll be coordinating with galleries, colleges, and universities throughout the Appalachian and outlying regions to host exhibitions of the work and would like to see it travel throughout 2015 and 2016. I’d love to see a companion catalog of work release next year as well, but funding will dictate most of this. At this point, we haven’t secured an grants or private donations. Moving forward, I plan to continue the project as long as there’s an interest and folks are willing to submit images. I’d also very much like to see a quarterly print publication evolve from this.”
One final note from Roger: I’d just really like to take an opportunity to thank the folks who have helped so much with this project behind the scenes and who helped get it off the ground. Aaron Blum, Kate Fowler, Chris Fowler, Raymond Thompson Jr., Megan King, Susan Worsham, Pat Jarrett, John Edwin Mason, Pete Brook, Joy Salyers, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Rob Amberg, Nic Persinger, and many, many others. This project couldn’t move forward without their help and support. And of course, all the photographers who have submitted work so far. This project belongs to everyone.
Pop South interviews Stephen Prince, Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida, about his new book Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915, published by UNC Press in April.
PS: The main title of your book is “Stories of the South.” Since this is a history book and not a book of literature, please tell readers of Pop South about the kind of stories your book examines.
I use the term “stories” fairly loosely. Though I do analyze literary texts, I find stories about the South in a variety of other places: congressional debates, newspaper editorials, travel narratives, speeches, sermons, visual art, popular theater, songs, promotional material, writings on the “race problem,” political cartoons, and scholarly treatises. I cast my net pretty wide in order to capture the range of sites at which people grappled with the nature of the South in the fifty years after the Civil War.
PS: The subtitle of your book is “Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity.” When you write about “southern identity” between the Civil War and World War I, specifically whose identity are you concerned with? Whites? Blacks? Men? Women?
The book starts from a fairly simple premise. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the meaning of the South – defined as a region, a people, a civilization – was an open question. “The South,” as it had been, had ceased to be. The question was what the region would become. Over the next fifty years, Americans – northern and southern, male and female, black and white – debated the nature of the South. I use these conversations to chart a course from the racial egalitarianism of Reconstruction to the nightmare of Jim Crow.
That said, I’m not particularly attuned to the ways that individual southerners understood their “southern-ness” on a private, personal level. I’m much more interested in popular, public discussions of the South. References to “the Southern Question” were extraordinarily common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Northerners played an important role in these discussions, before and after the oft-cited “end” of Reconstruction in 1877. I argue that the South was re-defined in conversation between the sections. The ability to define the South carried with it enormous political power. To tell the story of the South was to control the South.
PS: Your book relies on sources of popular culture as a way to better understand the region. What types of sources did you use and was there a consistent message among those sources regarding the American South?
The message is definitely not consistent! Contestation and debate were the only constants. One of my goals was to bring cultural history to the study of the postwar U.S. South. Political and social history still dominate the literature on Reconstruction and its aftermath. Debates over the future of the South certainly occurred in the halls of Congress and on individual southern farms and plantations, but there was a much wider cultural universe in which the nature of the region was discussed. In order to understand the retreat from Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, we need to pay attention to the larger cultural context in which political change occurred. Viewed from this perspective, a fantastic and phantasmagoric* pamphlet on the Ku Klux Klan is not just ephemera, it’s an important part of the cultural landscape in which power was won and contested. The same is true of the New South’s city boosting literature, Thomas Nelson Page’s plantation fiction, and the songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Culture matters. Without understanding the stories that Americans told themselves about the South, we can’t understand the history of the South.
PS: One of your main arguments is that cultural production—particularly popular culture—is as important to understanding what shaped the South in the post-Civil War era as are political and economic changes. What role did popular culture play in shaping contemporary ideas about the South in the 19thc.?
Though I try to avoid simplistic cause-and-effect analysis, a large-scale change-over-time argument structures much of the book. In the first years of Reconstruction, northerners seized the power to re-imagine the South. By the 1880s, however, conservative white southerners had realized the significance of what we might call the cultural front in the war on Reconstruction. By the early twentieth century, northerners were largely content to defer to white southerners on matters relating to the South, particularly where race was involved. Throughout, African-Americans told their own tales of the South. In the process, they offered eloquent testimony to the power of culture and public opinion. Go read Frederick Douglass’s last speech on lynching or the cakewalk scene in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. As Douglass put it, “words are things.” The way that people described affairs in the South – the words they used, the stories they told – mattered deeply.
PS: Last, but not least, what about your newest research project might interest readers of Pop South?
I’m now writing a book about the 1900 New Orleans riot, tentatively titled The Ballad of Robert Charles: Race, Violence, and Memory in the Jim Crow South. The riot has a place in all the big books on the rise of Jim Crow, but no one has attempted a full scholarly study since William Ivy Hair’s 1976 Carnival of Fury. The violence in New Orleans started when a black man named Robert Charles shot and killed several white police officers. Over the new few days, white New Orleanians took their revenge on the city’s African American residents, killing at least five and wounding dozens more. When the authorities finally located Charles, an enormous gunfight broke out. Trapped in a second story loft, Charles shot several more white people before he was killed. The riot quickly became a national story, spawning extensive newspaper coverage and becoming the subject of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s pamphlet Mob Rule in New Orleans. Though white and black elites did their best to eradicate the memory of Robert Charles, evidence suggests that he lived on as something of a folk hero among working-class African Americans in New Orleans and beyond.
The book’s title – The Ballad of Robert Charles – comes from a 1938 interview that folklorist Alan Lomax recorded with jazz legend and New Orleans native Jelly Roll Morton. “They had a song out on Robert Charles,” Morton recalled. “I used to know the song, but I found it was best for me to forget it. And that I did, in order to go along with the world on the peaceful side.” The ballad of Robert Charles was too explosive to remember, too dangerous to sing. Following Morton’s lead, I hope my book will be much more than a story about Jim Crow New Orleans. It will also be an exploration of memory, forgetting, historical silences, and the power of the past.
It happened again last week. Another journalist took a swipe at my beloved Appalachia. Yet it’s difficult to stand tall against national media outlets like the New York Times. Even I know this. As someone who has published op-eds in the Times, I am very familiar with its impact.
Right now, Annie Lowery’s email box is probably filling up with reactions to her piece “What’s the Matter With Eastern Kentucky“. She’s also feeling the wrath of Appalachian writers decrying Lowery’s “urban condescension,” as the essayist and playwright Anne Shelby put it. Shelby lives in Clay County, Kentucky, the county that, according to Lowery, has the distinction of being dead last in the country for “quality of life.”
At least that’s case based on statistics drawn from metrics a Times “data-analysis venture” calculated. I can get down with statistics. I can even agree with them. But where’s the broader context and where are the people in this story?
Shelby is spot on when she calls Lowery out for “urban condescension,” because that’s what it amounts to. Lowery and other journalists often fall into the trap of treating urban living as “better” than rural living. There’s also some regional condescension going on as well when she refers to the Deep South and Appalachia as “the smudge of the country between New Orleans and Pittsburgh.” The “smudge?” Really?
We also get a lot of rhetoric about where the folks from Eastern Kentucky should move if they want a better quality of life, but what’s missing is an understanding that, despite its poverty, Appalachia is their home. I have lived in the South all of my life. I was born in West Virginia and when asked I will always claim it as where I’m from.
Sadly, many people have left the region to pursue jobs or an education elsewhere, so Lowery’s point about declining populations in Appalachia is well taken. And yet the stereotypes implicit in Lowery’s piece, and others that take patronizing aim at the region’s poverty, do absolutely nothing to better our understanding of the people or the place.
Thankfully, there are writers like Anne Shelby and Silas House who speak the truth about Appalachia. And, then there’s this wonderful guy named Roger May, a photographer who is directing a project called “Looking at Appalachia” that takes direct aim at the negative ways that the War on Poverty has visually defined the region for more than two generations.
He knows, and I know, there is beauty in those hills and hollers, and it includes the people who live there. And that’s no statistic.
Next week I’ll be giving the annual Low Lecture, co-sponsored by the Department of History, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The good people there made this nice poster to accompany the talk.
It seems fitting that after posting a blog about pop culture’s southern gentleman that I should talk about his counterpart, the southern belle. What follows is an edited version of an early blog I wrote for another site.
A few years ago TLC, the channel that still airs Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, brought us a show called Bama Belles. It seems unlikely that “belle” is an appellation anyone would apply to women who don camouflage to hunt or are ready to start a bar fight. Still, the conscious decision by the show’s producers to make “belles” part of the show’s title offers an opportunity to consider the evolution of the term that is now used to describe the women on this show. (Update: Bama Belles was cancelled after only a few episodes.)
“Belle” was originally applied to white women of the southern planter class and a woman who was classified as such was as much a creation of antebellum sentimental literature as she was real. During the nineteenth century, authors North and South placed her at the center of the plantation legend and idealized her as one who was as delicate as she was strong, and as feminine as she was a dominant figure of the plantation. Novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, too, have made the southern belle central characters in their narratives. The most famous of these was Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic Gone with the Wind. Scarlett, however, was more modern than her predecessors, which is one of the reasons women around the world found her appealing.
Mid-twentieth-century southern debutantes also donned the title of “belle.” No longer plantation mistresses, these belles were still members of the South’s white social elite. For its July 9, 1951 issue, Life magazine featured Charlotte, North Carolina, debutantes with the caption that they looked “as gracious as any ante-bellum belles,” a clear reference to their Old South antecedents. Being a debutante or a pageant queen has often qualified southern women as belles, and no fewer than a dozen southern contestants were crowned Miss America between the 1950 and 1980, which in its own way helped to perpetuate the image of southern women as belles. Then, in the 1980s, debutante and pageant queen came together in Delta Burke’s portrayal of Suzanne Sugarbaker on television’s Designing Women.
Over the last several years the term has been partially stripped of its “whites only” racial affiliation, illustrating how the term has evolved. Some years ago, I was having a conversation with someone who referred to the students at Bennett College (a private, historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina) as “belles.” Their student handbook is known as the “Bennett Belle Book,” their email is “Bellesmail,” and campus updates come in the form of “Belle Alerts.” Admittedly, it was the first time I had heard the term applied to black women, but it made sense given the socially elite dimensions of the term. It certainly applied to the fictional character Whitley Gilbert, an African American southern belle played by Jasmine Guy on the showA Different World (1987-1993) in a sitcom based on the fictional Hillman College. The tradition of the black southern belle continues with the most recent addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, attorney Phaedra Parks. She, too, is a self-proclaimed southern belle. On the one hand she is modern in her approach to “belledom,” and yet she has more traditional belle credentials, such as her participation in beauty pageants and her membership in Atlanta’s Junior League.
Some folks might be surprised that men, too, can be belles. Throughout the South they exist in the form of female impersonators. In fact, there are numerous regional pageants whose competitions are just as fierce as those held for women. I served as a guest judge for at least two such pageants in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, including one for “Miss Dixie,” and can vouch for the seriousness of the contestants to offer their best impression of the southern belle.
The one feature of the southern belle that seems to have remained consistent over time—regardless of race, class, or gender—is that it is largely a social performance.
Given that, the belle clearly tolls for anyone who’s interested in the part.
The American South has been the subject and setting for countless films over the years and many of them have been nominated for Best Picture, and more than a few have won the Oscar. And this year is no exception. Among the nominees for Best Picture are “12 Years a Slave,” most of which is set in Louisiana, and “Dallas Buyers Club,” set in Texas. (Update: 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture)
While the 1930s was known for movies set in the Old South, the first motion picture set in the region to receive an Oscar nomination was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” (1932) in which a wrongly-convicted James Allen (played by Paul Muni) serves time on a southern chain gang. The next southern-based film to get an Oscar nomination was “Jezebel” (1938), starring Bette Davis who won the Oscar for Best Actress. Set in Louisiana, it is one of the better films in the genre of the plantation legend, because of its stars, but it still employs African Americans in stereotypical roles. One year later, in 1939, “Gone with the Wind” (GWTW) surpassed all previous films of its kind and not only won Oscar for Best Picture, it was truly one of the first films to become a blockbuster, and its representation of the South shaped popular perceptions of the region for decades to come.
Oscar-nominated films set in the American South after GWTW include the following:
*Denotes winner of Best Picture
The Little Foxes (1941)
The Yearling (1946)
All the King’s Men (1949)*
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)*
Midnight Cowboy (1969)* (included because of Jon Voight’s character Joe Buck)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Norma Rae (1979)
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The Big Chill (1983)
Tender Mercies (1983)
A Soldier’s Story (1984)
Places in the Heart (1984)
The Color Purple (1985)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)*
The Prince of Tides (1991)
Forrest Gump (1994)*
The Green Mile (1999)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Blind Side (2009)
Winter’s Bone (2010)
The Help (2011)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Django Unchained (2012)
12 Years a Slave (2013)*
Dallas Buyers Club
Back in 1938, German director Kurt Neumann said that the South was “one of the best subjects Hollywood has ever had for sustained interest,” adding “we are just beginning to understand the South.” At the time, Hollywood was still making films focused on the Old South. While films with a southern setting continue to draw on regional stereotypes, not all of them do. And yet even in 2014, it seems fair to conclude that Hollywood is still “just beginning to understand the South.”