Monday, January 16, 2012

The Help in a Box

Aunt Jemima then
Let me open by saying Happy Martin Luther King Day!  Nearly 100 years after the Civil War, Dr. King put our nation on the road to racial reconciliation.  It’s a long road and we’re still on it, but things certainly have improved.

Prior to racial barriers being broken, blacks were relegated to positions of servitude.  Even high achieving blacks in white schools were encouraged by teachers and counselors to seek trades.

If you’ve read Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help, or seen the movie, you get a good feel for what life was like in the South during the early days of the Civil rights era.

With all the talk about The Help, I decided to blog about Aunt Jemima today.  My kids love Aunt Jemima frozen waffles and Aunt Jemima pancake mix.  I grew up eating waffles and pancakes that my mom made from scratch—which is exactly what I did for my kids.  But they prefer the premade frozen and mix (eaten at sleepovers) to my homemade.  Store brand waffles  and pancake mix aren’t as good, according to my boys.  “We want Aunt Jemima!”  (Sorry, Mom)

Aunt Jemima now
Prior to my kids demanding Aunt Jemima, I never bought the products—and seeing the Aunt Jemima label in a black person’s home used to shock me. I realize no ill feelings exist behind the label (Quaker Oats owns Aunt Jemima now), but the origins of the Aunt Jemima character are insensitive, or what's today considered politically incorrect.

When I was a growing up, my mother never allowed Aunt Jemima’s broad, smiling face to darken our pantry shelf (yes, pun intended).  Why did Mom despise this seemingly  innocuous,  jolly woman?  Well it all goes back to southern slave history.

Back in slavery days, very young white children called much older slaves aunt and uncle.  Apparently the practice of calling any black person  aunt or uncle, carried over into post slavery times.

My mother grew up in 1930’s South Carolina, and when white salesmen would come to the door and address my feisty grandmother as Auntie (pronounced “Ainie” in the southern vernacular), she’d say, “My mother never gave birth to anything that looked like you!” before slamming the door.

So, Mom never purchased Aunt Jemima because addressing a black woman as aunt or auntie (instead of Miss, Mrs. or ma'am) was a disrespectful practice.  However, she never had a problem with Uncle Ben, perhaps because he didn’t appear as a buffoonish caricature.  For years Aunt Jemima was portrayed as the stereotypical black mammy of the plantation south. Old Aunt Jemima was a minstrel song written in 1875 and the Aunt Jemima character was a fixture in minstrel shows during the late 19th century.

The idea of this pre-mixed product being represented by a slave woman was inspired by the marketing aspect of bringing back “the good old days” when slaves did all the work.  In the book Slave in a Box, Maurice Manning shows how “advertising entrepreneur James Webb Young, aided by celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth, skillfully tapped into nostalgic 1920s perceptions of the South as a culture of white leisure and black labor. Aunt Jemima's ready-mixed products offered middle-class housewives the next best thing to a black servant: a ‘slave in a box’ that conjured up romantic images of not only the food but also the social hierarchy of the plantation South.” (From the Slave in a Box Amazon page).

When I was a kid, my mom said, “if they’d just take that kerchief off her head and call the product Jemima, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”  Aunt Jemima’s appearance has changed throughout the years.  She’s no longer buffoonish looking and doesn’t resemble a mammy.  She’s been slimmed down, her kerchief evolved into a hair band before finally disappearing, and she now sports a 1980s hairdo.  The only thing that hasn’t changed, and will forever prevent my mom from buying any Aunt Jemima product is the “Aunt” in front of her name. 

Most African Americans of later generations don’t know about the derogatory past of Aunt Jemima.  But there are probably plenty  in my mom’s age group that don’t buy Aunt Jemima because of its hurtful past.

I’ll end things on a lighter note.  I won’t put you on the spot and ask whether or not you buy Aunt Jemima!  But I will ask this instead, do you prefer pancakes from mix or from scratch?

Now let me take a moment to shamelessly plug my book! If you have read The Help, readers have found The Governor’s Sons a good follow-up.  It provides a different glimpse of “the help” by showing what happens when a wealthy young man falls in love with his family’s African American maid. 

Thanks for visiting!


Old Kitty said...

Happy Martin Luther King Day!!! Aunt Jemima is exactly why this day should really be celebrated world-wide!

Take care

Maria McKenzie said...

Thanks, Old Kitty! The times have changed:).

William Kendall said...

The older version definitely has that caricature-stereotype feel to it. I can see why it would be a touchy subject.

I don't cook myself, but my mother's always cooked from scratch. I don't know about the campus restaurants, if they go from scratch or a mix.

Jennette Marie Powell said...

Wow, I'll say times have changed! I never knew the story behind the Aunt Jemima character (or calling a black woman "auntie"). I guess I always figured it was akin to the Mrs. Butterworth of syrup fame - and she's a white, grandmotherly type. But then I never saw the older Aunt J. labels where she's clearly in a servile position.

The Governor's Son looks fantastic - it's in my TBR folder! Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

Maria McKenzie said...

@William: Yeah, it's touchy alright:). The last time I ate at a big chain pancake place, it tasted like they used a mix.

@Jennette: Thanks for visiting! I think most people think of Aunt Jemima as being similar to Mrs. B. Hope you enjoy my book!

Shurl said...

Hello, I found your blog through Evia's website. I love the story of how you and your husband met! PS: Just today, I decided to continue making pancakes from scratch instead of box brand. I have a two year old and figured from scratch may be healthier (and so far he doesn't know the difference!) The "aunt jemima" story is new to me. Thanks for sharing it. I was torn about seeing The Help. Although it looks good, I feel kind of sorry that the actresses may be nominated for academy awards for playing maids. There are so few acting parts in Hollywood for black women. Oh well.

Maria McKenzie said...

Hi, Shuri! Thanks so much for visiting:). Pancakes from scratch are healthier because you know exactly what goes into them!

I understand how you feel about The Help. And it is a shame that there are so few roles for black actresses. However, Viola Davis played the heck out of that role and is deserving of the Oscar!

Thanks agian for visiting!