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.

256px-Aunt_Jemima,_AB_Frost
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.

 

Advertisements

Freedom of Speech? Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson quacks about homosexuals and “the blacks”

Phil Robertson from A&E's Duck Dynasty
Phil Robertson from A&E’s Duck Dynasty

Duck Dynasty, the enormously popular reality television program produced by A&E, is under fire thanks to some eye-opening statements made by Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, in an interview with GQ magazine.  That’s Gentleman’s Quarterly, in case you were wondering.  And, the comments weren’t so, shall we say, gentlemanly.

Essentially, Daddy Duck equated homosexuality with being one train stop short of bestiality.  And, he seems to believe that “the blacks” who worked for white farmers in his home state of Louisiana were “happy,” going so far as to say “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!” (from “The Gospel According to Phil,” GQ Blog, December 18, 2013).  Since Robertson quacked the truth, he’s been suspended indefinitely from the show.

No one should be surprised by this and it was just a matter of time before we were going to hear it, if not from Phil, then perhaps one of his sons.  We can expect religious conservatives to make negative comments about gays.  We can also expect a white southerner of Phil’s generation to refer to African Americans as “the blacks,” as though they are a separate species.  In that regard, he has something in common with Paula Deen.

Yet the focus has been on his statements about homosexuality. Gay advocacy groups like The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have been been quick to call Robertson out for what it says are “anti-Christian” views. That’s red meat for conservatives, who have jumped to his defense saying that liberals are “hysterical” (Rush Limbaugh), or “intolerants” (Sarah Palin), and that Phil was just expressing his First Amendment Rights (Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal).

No one seems to have taken much issue with A&E who has crafted a statement distancing itself from Robertson’s remarks.  Yet producers knew.  Robertson was quoted in the GQ article as saying “we’re bible thumpers who just happened to end up on television.”  The network understood this going into its contract (and re-negotiations) with the beards.  And anyone paying attention knows that the more popular Duck Dynasty has become, the more free the family has been about sharing its conservative values and, in Phil’s case, strict interpretation of the bible.

For what it’s worth, I believe that Phil Robertson has a right to his opinions and his beliefs. The problem, of course, is that he’s on an enormously popular television show with millions of viewers over whom he has tremendous influence.  And while he has since given a statement “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me,” what he fails to realize is that there are people who are fans of the show who would disrespect others.  Or worse.  And therein lies the problem.

Perhaps the profits for A&E have outweighed the risks. The network has certainly been down this path before with Dog the Bounty Hunter.  Remember him? People may have forgotten that Dog was recorded using the “n-word” and not too long after, A&E cancelled the show.  It may come to this, much to the chagrin of Duck Dynasty fans, but for now it will be played out as a culture war cast by conservatives as a battle royale between “defenders of free speech” and the “Gay Mafia.”

Let’s all grab some popcorn.

What it means to be a “soul sister” in a southern kitchen

dora-charles-paula-deen
Dora Parker, the woman Paula Deen called her “soul sister.” Photo credit: New York Times.

I encourage readers of Pop South to read today’s New York Times op-ed by Rebecca Sharpless providing historical perspective on Dora Charles, the woman Paula Deen called her “soul sister.”

Ms. Charles, who helped open Deen’s restaurant Lady & Sons as well as train other cooks who worked there, was recently interviewed by the Times about her relationship with Deen.  That interview is, in many ways, even more revealing about who Paula Deen is than the deposition she gave in the lawsuit brought against her by a white woman, Lisa Jackson.

I also encourage you to read Rebecca Sharpless’s book, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (UNC Press, 2010). It’s a great read.

Paula Deen, Uncle Bubba, and the Silence Over Sexual Harassment

Paula Deen with her brother Bubba Hiers, co-owners of Uncle Bubba's Oyster House.
Paula Deen with her brother Bubba Hiers, co-owners of Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House.

The Paula Deen fiasco that has unraveled over the past several days has me thinking about her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers.  Specifically, where the hell is Uncle Bubba?  Because if you take a look at the original lawsuit, he is the one who needs his ass kicked all the way to Tybee Island for the hostile work environment created at the restaurant that carries his name.

To be clear, I still believe Paula Deen needs to be held accountable.  And for sure, she needs to offer a more sincere apology–one that doesn’t suggest that it’s about someone who wants what she has.  (See the the analysis of her Today Show interview.)  That may be true, but it doesn’t let Deen off the hook for her own racial missteps.

What boggles my mind, though, is the extent to which Paula Deen goes to cover for the men in her life, especially her brother.

In the lawsuit, we learn that her companies and her restaurant Lady & Sons is essentially a “Boys Club.”  And the boys, it turns out, behave badly.  Especially Uncle Bubba.

The lawsuit, moreover, isn’t just about a work environment damaged by racial slurs.  It’s very much about the ways that sexual harassment created a hostile work environment for women.

First, it is abundantly clear from the allegations that Uncle Bubba is the primary culprit for making racial slurs.  Yet what is also clear is that he regularly engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior and often used foul language when speaking to women or about women.

According to the lawsuit:

–Karl Schumacher, who is in charge of compensation for employees allegedly said that “women are stupid because they think they can work and have babies and get everything done.”

–Bubba Hiers allegedly either brought pornography to the restaurant or openly watched pornography “on the kitchen computer” where it was visible to several employees;

–Bubba Hiers allegedly made several sexual jokes in the workplace, criticized the “fat girls” who worked in the restaurant, told Lisa Jackson she had “nice legs” and to bring in photos of herself from when she was younger; and suggested that the restaurant staff be replaced with “Hooter’s girls.”;

–Lisa Jackson also alleges that Bubba Hiers “[grabbed] her face and [kissed] her and [spit] on her;”

And on, and on.

So, what’s much more clear now from Paula Deen’s deposition is that while she used a racial slur herself, she enabled the men who worked for her to continue their behavior by either ignoring the complaints brought to her attention, being willfully unaware of how her restaurants operated, and now, covering their asses–especially her brother Bubba.  This pisses me off, because while Deen is apologetic about the racial slurs, she hasn’t offered one apology for the sexual harassment.

But then, the media has ignored this aspect of the lawsuit as well as “Uncle Bubba’s” behavior.

Fortunately, we have reached a point in our society where many of us can rise up (and have) to say “no” to racism.  But we have NOT reached that point when it comes to sexual harassment.  In the public trial of Paula Deen, everyone’s been silent on this point. The media, Paula Deen, and her sons. Of course, Uncle Bubba has been silent about everything and is hiding behind his sister’s imaginary hoop skirt.

I, for one, think Earl “Bubba” Hiers needs to be held responsible for his behavior.  He should be dragged through the court of public opinion, too. The fact of the matter is that he’s gotten off easy.

If Deen’s use of a racial slur has proven there are consequences for doing so, then why not the same when it comes to sexual harassment?  There needs to be consequences for that, too.

That day can’t come soon enough.

Paula Deen’s Recipe for Self-Destruction

paula-deen-300
Paula Deen

There’s not enough butter to cover up or improve the bad taste that Paula Deen has left in people’s mouths since they learned that the South’s most famous cook admitted to using the “N-word” as well as making other racially insensitive remarks. Twitter lit up with fake recipe titles attached to the hashtag #paulasbestdishes, skewering Deen for her racial insensitivity.  “We Shall Over-Crumb Cake” and “Massa-roni and Cheese” are just two (and, frankly, kind) of hundreds of examples.

Her comments came under oath as she was being deposed by attorneys for Lisa Jackson, a former employee who is suing Deen and her brother Earl “Bubba” Hiers, along with Deen’s company, for alleged “violent, racist, and sexist behavior.” The full details of the complaint, in fact, are much more alarming and disturbing and go well beyond racial epithets.  Yet for now, the focus is on Paula Deen’s racist comments, and for good reason.

Deen has presented herself and has been marketed as the “face of southern cooking.”  Her shows on the Food Network, her cookbooks, magazines, and product endorsements have made her a household name and a multimillionaire. She is a very public figure and has to know that what she says and does will be publicly scrutinized.  And if she didn’t, she certainly knows it now.

So what did she say?  Under oath, she admitted to using the “N-word.”  She also said she wanted to plan a “really southern plantation wedding” for her brother Bubba Hiers.  Her inspiration came while visiting another southern restaurant where black men wore white jackets and black bow ties.  She was impressed, she said, because “that restaurant represented a certain era in America.” And when Jackson was brought in to assist the famed southern cook with preparation for Hiers wedding, she alleges that the following conversation with Deen occurred:

“Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. . . Now that would be a true southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.” (courtesy of Talking Points Memo)

The media is on her, alright. And so are a lot of Americans who have taken to social media to let her know just what they think of her comments and her, personally.

Yet what I’m interested in here, as someone who blogs about the South in popular culture, is Deen’s supposed naiveté about the use of the N-word and her misinformed (to say nothing of outdated) view of what she believes represents a “really southern plantation wedding.”

First, there’s her use of the term “nigger.”  Deen, who is 66 years-old and grew up in southwest Georgia, knows exactly what the term means and knows full well that historically, it’s been used as a pejorative. In fact, she admits to as much under oath, saying “things have changed since the ’60s in the South. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior.”  Though, apparently, it’s okay to use in a joke. Well, now that she’s been caught using it, she’s being forced to consider that it’s not a laughing matter, y’all.

I have a sneaking suspicion that given the power she wields because of her wealth and celebrity, she didn’t think that using that term around one of her employees would matter, especially when that employee’s job depended on it.  Based on her responses to attorneys’ questions, it appears as though Deen felt she only used the n-word to describe, not hurt. She seems to believe that what she said was innocuous, and it didn’t even occur to her that a fellow white southerner might have a problem with it.  As it turns out, not only is Lisa Jackson white, she has biracial nieces.

Bill_Bojangles_Robinson-4
Deen’s idea of a southern plantation is straight out of a Hollywood movie from the 1930s. Pictured: Bill Robinson with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935)

Deen’s desire to give her brother a “really southern plantation wedding” is also problematic, because she’s out of touch with reality to say nothing of southern history. What she described, according to the complaint, was essentially Hollywood’s version of a southern plantation from movies of the 1930s.  Her reference to Shirley Temple films was a dead giveaway.  In 1935, Temple starred in two films set in the Old South, The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel.  In both, her co-star was Bill “BoJangles” Robinson who, like in Paula Deen’s image of the South “of a certain era,” is seen wearing jacket and bow tie.

The “certain era” she recalls, of course, isn’t the plantation South at all.  As one of my peers rightly noted: “As a southern historian I’ve seen a great many 19th century slave photos and none included tuxedo clad slave waiters.”  Indeed. What Deen described in her testimony is a 1930s pop culture version.  In essence, what she hoped to recreate for her brother Bubba was a wedding scene straight out of a Jim Crow era film.

According to her attorney, Paula Deen “does not condone or find the use of racial epithets acceptable.” Such a statement is to be expected now that her own use of racial epithets has been exposed, because her southern cooking empire is very likely in jeopardy as a result.

Deen’s experience is a lesson to us all that we do not live in a post-racial America. At the same time, we should not assume that racism is simply a “southern” problem. Unfortunately, given Deen’s association with the region, the popular perception of a monolithic, racist white South rears its ugly head. Yet, what I hope doesn’t get lost in all of this is that while Deen feigns to represent the South, she is not representative of the entire region. Another southern white woman, after all, is responsible for calling her out and holding her feet to the fire.