THE OBENSON REPORT

Covering Cinema From All Across The African Diaspora

3 Racially Insensitive Brand Mascots That Should Die!

It's amazingly uncanny how these age-old minstrel media caricatures have been effectively tenderized and simplified to allow for easy, comfortable mass digestion. They've become as American as rigged elections! Instead of planting seeds of outrage, they generate a silent, creepy, albeit unconscious kind of lighthearted, familial acceptance that I find rather disturbing.

On first thought, I wondered if I was just being too sensitive. But all it takes is one read of the origins of these mascots to reignite whatever flame of outrage burned inside of me initially. So, I think it's time we put these fictional images to death, once and for all, and bury them deep enough that they no longer exist tangibly (specifically as brands), but also aren't entirely forgotten.


With considerable help from Wikipedia, here are three of them:

1. Aunt Jemima - The direct inspiration for Aunt Jemima originates from a minstrelsy song of the same name, performed by blackface performers who wore an apron and kerchief. She was represented as a slave and was the most commonplace representation of the stereotypical "mammy" character. The character of Aunt Jemima also appeared in vaudeville, played by a white actress, who performed the role in blackface.

Nancy Green, born a slave in Montgomery County, Kentucky, was hired by R.T. Davis Milling Company to play the Jemima character from 1890 to her death in 1923. The likeness of Ethel Ernestine Harper (a school teacher) served as the basis for most remaining Aunt Jemima print advertising starting in the 1950s, until the Jemima character was changed into a composite in the 1960s.

The Aunt Jemima trademark has been modified several times over the years. In her most recent make-over in the late 80s/early 90's, as she reached her 100th anniversary she was transformed into a younger, thinner woman, dressed up, and her kerchief removed to reveal a natural hairdo and pearl earrings. This new look remains with the products to this day.


2. Uncle Ben - When white South Carolina planters were unable to make their rice crops thrive, slaves from West Africa taught planters new techniques for growing the crop. In the American South, whites once commonly referred to elderly black men as uncle even though they were not blood relatives. During the later 20th century, this was considered patronizing and demeaning and was widely deprecated. Moreover, during the 1940s, black people were popularly associated with rice.

Uncle Ben's image is that of an elderly African-American man dressed in a bow tie, perhaps meant to imply a domestic servant in the Aunt Jemima tradition.

After 61 years, in March 2007 Uncle Ben's image was "promoted" to "chairman of the board" by a new advertising campaign designed to distance the brand from its stereotyped iconography depicting a domestic servant.

3. Chef Rastus - Rastus is a pejorative term traditionally associated with African Americans. It is considered highly offensive. "Rastus" has been used as a generic, often derogatory, name for black men at least since 1880. Rastus - as any happy black man, not as a particular person - became a familiar character in minstrel shows, in books, in popular songs, and in films.

Rastus later appeared on packages of Cream of Wheat cereal in 1890, and is still the Cream of Wheat trademark today. The image is believed to be from a photograph of Frank L. White, a Chicago chef who reportedly was paid five dollars to pose in a chef's hat and jacket. His face has been featured on the box with only slight modifications until the present day.

All 3 of these mascots still exist today, unapologetically, in full bloom, omnipresent. Many of us see them everyday - at breakfast, lunch and dinner - staring at us, smiling, servile, in 2-D. And we smile back - that is when we even bother to notice that they are there. Maybe because they seem so harmless today, since each image has evolved over time, thanks to creative corporate marketing teams, to supposedly embrace the zeitgeist. But no matter how much we dress them up, no matter how much the package changes, the history that gave birth to each image - the intent, the meaning - will never entirely fade.

Is it time that we say goodbye to these images that really serve no purpose in contemporary American society, except to prolong racist and oppressive ideologies that once were pervasive throughout this country?

4 comments:

  1. Invisible Woman said...
     

    I thought it was such a freakin' joke when they had a website for Uncle Ben where you could "virtual tour his boardroom". What CEO do you know that wears a bow tie and huge ass servant cuffs?

  2. The Obenson Report said...
     

    Haha! Yeah, I remember that. I laughed at the whole thing. It was all so silly that I couldn't help but laugh! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  3. albertine said...
     

    I can think of so many others that need to die and not specifically African American. For example, I remember the hoopla a few years back around the Washington Redskins football team name and mascot. And it's still their mascot.

  4. UK Black Chick aka Wendy said...
     

    I totally understand your sentiment but, as these are visual reminders of America's not so great (for some, anyway) past, maybe it's better they stay than go.

    For instance, how many brands that never featured offensive images of idiotically supine, smiling black faces actually built their wealth and popularity on slavery/exploitation (past and present)?

    I'm sure there are many sugar, chocolate, tobacco and countless other kinds of product brands that have managed to elude PC policing simply because they never had any visiual imagery depicting their racist/exploitative beginnings and/or backgrounds. Such products are just seen as successful brands with seemingly benign histories and to whose coffers we happily and ignorantly contribute.

    Of course, as you've pointed out, knowing doesn't mean that the brands become less popular or successful. I mustn't forget that knowing and caring are two different things.

    But while we're on the subject of racist images, the German Obama doll (created in 2008, no less!) just has to die before it gets the chance to breathe for too long...!

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