The kitchen is where families come together to discuss matters, important and trivial, engaging in dialogue that helps fortify the familial bonds. Congregating around the dinner table and breaking bed together while discussing pertinent or inane matters, families enjoy meals of varying sizes and ingredients.
Though the food served is routinely prepared via heating-up packaged fare and/or picked up at a restaurant in the form of takeout, families are still offered the opportunity to dine the old-fashioned if they utilize two certain foods.
Since having a live-in butler (like Geoffrey or Mr. Belvedere) is relatively expensive, preparing the meal falls to the matriarch of the family (being progressive, it might even be the patriarch’s duty). Yet, when the appointed-household chef deigns themselves to cook, reaching for one of two brands has the power to restore dignity from the most mundane chore.
You see, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are products that rest, ready to eat on most cupboards in kitchens across America and grant the cook an opportunity to whimsically revert to a simpler epoch when food was prepared by smiling servants.
It takes time to prepare a quality, home cooked meal and opportunities for more productive endeavors are cast aside when take-out or a microwavable meal is deemed a poor substitute. The always avuncular Ben smiles without any impolite backtalk when you reach for the product he peddles and maintains that same look as you prepare delicious rice for blissful consumption.
Recently Uncle Ben was elevated to CEO of his company, a veritable rags-to-riches story since he once toiled the kitchens of America in exhausting, backbreaking work preparing delectable rice for the masses:
When white South Carolina planters were unable to make their rice crops thrive, “slaves from West Africa’s rice region tutored planters in growing the crop.” In the American South, whites once commonly referred to elderly black men as "uncle," even though they were not blood relatives (cf. Uncle Remus and Uncle Tom). During the 1940s, blacks were popularly associated with rice. In the later 1800s, African-Americans were often featured as company spokespersons for agricultural and other products in the United States. This kind of market branding has continued, though to a lesser extent, into the 21st century.
Uncle Ben’s products carry the image of an elderly African-American man dressed in a bow tie, perhaps meant to imply a domestic servant in the Aunt Jemima tradition, or maybe a Chicago maitre d’hotel named Frank Brown. According to Mars, Uncle Ben was an African-American rice grower known for the quality of his rice. Gordon L. Harwell, an entrepreneur who had supplied rice to the armed forces in World War II, chose the name Uncle Ben’s as a means to expand his marketing efforts to the general public. The Mars company has not supplied any further biographical detail about the Uncle Ben persona.
After 61 years as a servant/maitre d’hotel/farmer, in March 2007, Uncle Ben's image was "promoted" to the "chairman of the board" by a new advertising campaign designed to distance the brand from its iconography depicting a domestic servant. A visit to the company website reveals a set of impressive double doors and a plaque reading "Chairman." The doors open into an executive-style office overlaid with a welcome message from Uncle Ben that begins, "Hello, I'm Uncle Ben." The name plate on the desk also reads "Chairman," and a portrait of the iconic marketing image hangs on the back wall. The boardroom is interactive, allowing visitors to click on sundry objects for additional information. This rebranding had a mixed reception from black critics, mainly because it continues to use name "Uncle Ben".
Evidence has been hard to acquire, but rumors have long been disseminated that Sprite’s former pitchman “Miles Thirst” was the secret love child between Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima.
Paternity tests inquires sent to Uncle Ben have been met with silence thus far from his public relations team, though the whereabouts of Miles Thirst are sadly unknown at this time as he has been missing since 2006.
Breakfast tables across America are covered in heaping plates of Miles Thirst’s purported mother’s wares, as Aunt Jemima is a welcome presence in homes that would otherwise never have a Black visitor. Since 1889, Aunt Jemima has been helping cooks across the country prepare scrumptious pancakes for consumption, a culinary-version of Song of the South come to life.
The inspiration for Aunt Jemima was Billy Kersands' minstrelsy/vaudeville song "Old Aunt Jemima", written in 1875. The Aunt Jemima character was prominent in minstrel shows in the late 19th century, and was later adopted by commercial interests to represent the Aunt Jemima brand.
St. Joseph Gazette editor Chris L. Rutt of St. Joseph, Missouri and his friend Charles G. Underwood bought a flour mill in 1888. Rutt and Underwood's Pearl Milling Company faced a glutted flour market, so they sold their excess flour as a ready-made pancake mix in white paper sacks with a trade name (which Arthur F. Marquette dubbed the "last ready-mix").
Rutt reportedly saw a minstrel show featuring the "Old Jemima" song in the fall of 1889 presented by blackface performers identified by Marquette as "Baker & Farrell". However, Doris Witt was unable to confirm Marquette's account. Witt suggests that Rutt might have witnessed a performance by the vaudeville performer Pete F. Baker, who played a character described in newspapers of that era as "Aunt Jemima". If this is correct, the original inspiration for the Aunt Jemima character was a white male in whiten face, who some have described as a German immigrant.
Marquette recounts that the actor playing Aunt Jemima wore an apron and kerchief, and Rutt appropriated this Aunt Jemima character to market the Pearl Milling Company pancake mix in late 1889 after viewing a minstrel show. However, Rutt and Underwood were unable to make the project work, so they sold their company to the R.T. Davis Milling Company in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1890.
The R. T. Davis Milling Company hired former slave Nancy Green as a spokesperson for the Aunt Jemima pancake mix in 1890. Nancy Green was born in Montgomery County, Kentucky, and played the Jemima character from 1890 until her death on September 24, 1923. As Jemima, Green operated a pancake-cooking display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois in 1893, appearing beside the "world's largest flour barrel." From this point on, marketing materials for the line of products centered around the stereotypical mammy archetype, including the Aunt Jemima marketing slogan first used at the World Fair, "I'se in Town, Honey".
Indeed, having friendly faces such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben present when concocting feasts for the family is enough to make any ill-tempered part-time cook sing “Zip-A-Dee-Doh-Dah”.
Black people find Uncle Ben – though he has been promoted to CEO – a constant reminder of the subservient Black image that they find inveterate throughout American history.
Aunt Jemima is even worse, as she is portly, lovable Black female content in her role of preparing pancakes for eternity. A glass-ceiling in her company has apparently removed any hope of a CEO title, though rumors are rampant she has her eye on the new Old Spice pitchman. A cougar we apparently have in Aunt Jemima.
Sadly, both figures evoke unpleasant reminders of a past long gone in the United States that is continually used as an attempt to justify current injustices. The past is never dead in America and anyone believing Aunt Jemima is an effective compliment needs a lobotomy:
DISD's executive director of accounting has been accused of racially harassing behavior after shouting "Aunt Jemima" to her employees.
A grievance has been filed against Marian Hamlett alleging racism and seeking disciplinary action for the comment that was made March 28 during a birthday party at the district's administration building.
Hamlett said her comment was a joke that was taken out of context.
Two district payroll employees accused Hamlett of calling her predominantly black staff "Aunt Jemimas."
The term "Aunt Jemima," a trademark for pancake and other breakfast products, is sometimes used as a female equivalent of the "Uncle Tom" insult, which refers to blacks who are perceived as servile to whites.
"Everybody knows it's a racist comment, first of all," said Dr. Juanita Wallace, president of the Dallas NAACP.
Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are byproducts of a more peaceful time, when docility was a normalized pattern found in the Black community and rampant criminality was much less common. Now, these two figures represent nefarious marketing characters that will soon both be expunged from the collective memories of consumers.
Stuff Black People Don’t Like includes Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, as they both represent persistent reminders of the incompatibility of the morals of Pre-Obama America with the new nation being erected in its place. Like the lawn jockey, these two staples of American cupboards are increasingly obsolete.
Defiance, instead of obedience is a more suitable ethic (which their hip-hop son, Miles Thirst, represented). However, millions of cooks across America right now will still utilize the cooking pedigree offered from the lovable Aunt Jemima and the affable, Uncle Ben.