Portraits of Aunt Jemima in Black and Blackface

Aunt-JemimaOne 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.

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Portrait of Nancy Green by Arthur Burdette Frost.

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.

Gardella's gravestone
Gardella’s gravestone
Tess Gardella as Aunt Jemima, early 1930s

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.

 

American Roadside: The Mammy of Natchez

Mammy's Cupboard is located on Highway 61 on the outskirts of Natchez, MS
Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, MS

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Visitors who travel to Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Highway 61 will be able to see an interesting relic of roadside architecture known as Mammy’s Cupboard. While some visitors just want to stop and photograph the building, locals go there because it’s a great place to get a meat and three and a slice of banana caramel pie that by itself is worth the five-mile drive from town.  For others, the building’s association with a “southern mammy” is enough for them to keep on driving.

Built in 1940, Mammy’s Cupboard originally operated as a family-owned Shell Gas station and convenience store.  It was a good investment at the time. The Natchez Pilgrimage, the spring tour of the town’s antebellum mansions, had grown exponentially since it began in 1932. Tourism to the town exploded following the enormous success of Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939. Many Americans who saw the film later went in search of houses like Tara;Natchez offered them that and more.

Today, the gas pumps at Mammy’s have been closed off, but it remains a family-owned restaurant that is primarily open for lunch.

White tourists, of course, were drawn to the Natchez mammy from the beginning.  By 1940, Aunt Jemima–a marketing figure based on a southern mammy–was already the most recognizable advertising icon in the country.  She reminded whites that this kind of happy servitude was still within reach.  For African Americans, mammy icons were a reminder of their second-class status.

Former Howard University Professor Sterling Brown wrote about the figure while traveling through the region in the early 1940s.  In A Negro Looks at the South, he observed:

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Edward Weston’s photo, 1941.

“Outside of Natchez, as a come-on for tourists, is the Mammy Gas Station and Barbecue Stand. With clean-cut features, a trim waist, and an elegant hoopskirt, a tall erect statue of a Mammy stands there, fronting the highway so proudly that her bandana seems out of place.  My host explained why: the yarn goes that she was intended to be a Southern belle, but when the bodice was poured, the bust filled past all planning.  Natchez objected to the breasts being so pendulous, and the statue’s complexion was colored to a deep chocolate.  Hoopskirt and waist and features still belong to the belle, but it is a colored girl, Egyptian-like, who welcomes the tourists to Natchez and invites the white natives to barbecue.”

In the more than seventy years that Mammy’s has been open, her skin tone has grown lighter in appearance–more white than black. She was still rather dark in the early 1990s, but has since become very fair–perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by the owners that the dark skin was at best inappropriate, and worse, an offensive reminder of the not-too-distant past.

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Postcard, 2013

Yet if you were to stop by Mammy’s Cupboard today, you’d still be able to get a postcard of the restaurant from the days when she was still dark.  It’s a small reminder of William Faulkner‘s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The Glory Foods Campaign Revisited: An issue of both race and gender

An image of “Shirley” is unavailable as are the television ads.

Recently, I wrote about the poorly-conceived marketing campaign for Glory Foods by The Brandon Agency (see: Black Domestic in a Can), a campaign that introduced a new generation to the stereotypical “black woman as mammy,” and reminds us of the Aunt Jemima of old.  If this weren’t bad enough, the campaign also works as a critique of white women’s abilities in the kitchen.  Miss White Lady, in one Glory Foods commercial, is a frustrated failure until a black woman (known as “Shirley” in radio ads and on the company’s website) shows up to save her in time to impress dinner guests.  In another commercial, Miss White Lady also fails to satisfy her bratty children.  And once again, she must be saved by the modern day mammy.

Does any of this sound familiar?  It should.  Fans of The Help will recognize in Shirley two different characters from the book.  In one commercial, Shirley is essentially Minnie who rescues the bumbling, naive, and helpless character Celia Foote who cannot cook to save her life.  In the second commercial, Shirley is something of a mix between Minnie and Abilene.  She’s sassy like Minnie, but like Abilene she also fills the role of surrogate parent–taking charge and getting the children to “eat their vegetables.”  Clearly excited about this campaign, Dan Charna, vice president of operations for Glory Foods is quoted as saying, “We hope everyone will invite Shirley into their kitchens via Glory Foods products.” (See, The Businesses Journal, April 11, 2012)

Thank goodness Dan Charna didn’t get his wish. The television campaign for Glory Foods, while it fails to understand the complex history of mammy in the kitchen, also insults white women by suggesting that they can’t cook and need help with their children.  As one woman of color suggested in a discussion of these ads on Facebook, “It serves nobody to depict a ‘hapless white woman in the kitchen’ nor a ‘buxom black cook in the kitchen.’ It’s demeaning not only to each race but to women in general.”  And from another woman of color, “There are [many] other ways you can sell Glory Foods without the maid/Jemima/mammy aspect. And I fail to believe that only white women are helpless when it comes to soul food.”

So, in sum, the campaign strikes a nerve on issues of both race and gender.  And that’s too bad, because if Glory Foods makes a good product–and I have no reason to believe it doesn’t–then why resort to southern stereotypes of both black and white women?

The Latest:  Since posting and tweeting about this ad campaign, the Brandon Agency has pulled the ads from television and YouTube, and “Shirley” no longer walks out onto the Glory Foods website to introduce herself. So, what does this mean?  Neither the agency nor the company were able to “see” what I and others saw before rolling out this new campaign, and seem caught off guard by the criticism.  To its credit, the agency is reassessing the campaign.  So, we shall see.

Black Domestic in a Can–A South Carolina Ad Agency “Helps” Glory Foods

IMPORTANT UPDATE:  After tweeting Scott Brandon of the Brandon Agency about these offensive commercials, they have been removed from YouTube.  Coincidence?  I think Pop South as well as viewer comments must have gotten their attention. (4/19/2012)

I wonder if you have seen these commercials by Glory Foods?  It’s a company out of Columbus, Ohio, that specializes in canned goods they call “Southern food with a soulful heritage.” In one, there’s a frustrated white housewife in the kitchen and she’s having trouble in preparing dinner for her guests.  What’s she going to do?  Not to worry, a black woman (known as “Shirley” on the company’s website) busts through the door to help!   As she prepares the food, a can of Glory collard greens, the white woman can relax.  Not only does she have a black woman working it out for her in her kitchen, she’s got food that already has its southern seasoning.   Even better, Shirley plans to stay hidden in the kitchen as she shouts to the white woman “Now get on out there, and take all the Glory!”

I thought this was an unfortunate commercial, until I saw a second and related commercial.  It’s the same white woman, although this time her two children are involved, shouting and banging their forks and knives on the table.  Who’s going to rescue Miss White Lady now?  You guessed it, the canned black domestic.*  She’s going to set those mouthy children straight, make sure they eat their vegetables, and guess who gets to take “all the glory?”  Miss White Lady.

I wonder what is going on here, because it looks like Glory Foods is taking its cues from The Help.  But this isn’t 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. I went to the website of the company and that’s where I discovered that this is a black-owned business with an African American CEO who has an MBA from Duke University.  So what gives?

Who is the company trying to reach with these commercials except, perhaps, all those white women who read The Help and are looking to recapture some of that for themselves? It’s certainly an interesting marketing ploy.  Perhaps that is the point. And guess what?

The Brandon Agency, a South Carolina-based advertising agency with offices in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and even Charlotte, North Carolina are behind the TV commercials.  The agency was hired by Glory Foods back in February, which explains why these commercials have recently appeared in Charlotte.  Take a look at the agency’s website and you’ll find something very interesting–the entire leadership team is white.  That’s right.  White “originalists” (the term the agency uses to describe company leaders and probably found in the bottom of a cocktail glass) from South Carolina came up with the Glory Food campaign featuring a modern-day Aunt Jemima.

However, this shouldn’t let Glory Foods off the hook.  If this company were run by whites we’d be all over it with this analogy to The Help, which is why I don’t understand why Glory Foods and The Brandon Agency aren’t being called out for perpetuating this particular southern stereotype.

Maybe not enough people have seen these commercials or realize the underlying assumption (or history) of mammy in the kitchen.  If they had, they’d be as concerned about this image of black women as I am.