Sunday, December 26, 2004

Keep Your Trap Shut, Heidi –or–
“From Minstrel Shows to the World’s Fair: The Birth of Aunt Jemima”

Manring’s chapter (from his 1998 Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima) is interesting to discuss in the light of what I’ve been reading about myth and symbol. Manring discusses how Aunt Jemima’s picture found it’s way to the pancake mix box and thus become a symbol of comfort and good food for many of us—and because of such clever marketing, a myth developed about around a kernel of truth in her life, sort of the way a pearl develops around a grain of sand.

Chris Rutt had the idea of creating a pancake mix. It was the end of the nineteenth century, when, as Manring says, “the cheap and rapid production of paper bags” revolutionized the retail business because it allowed for the transportation and easy sale of prepared foods for the first time (63). He knew better than to call his product just “pancake mix,” so (as the story goes, anyway) he went to a minstrel show.

Manring details the order of events there, which I have detailed elsewhere (when I talked about Amos ‘n’ Andy), but in this show, Manring speculates that Rutt probably saw a white actor in drag—dressed as Aunt Jemima and singing a song about her. Rutt probably realized that she was “southern hospitality personified” and chose to use her as a sort of mascot (61). Manring makes a point of saying that it wasn’t coincidence that made Aunt Jemima so appealing to Rutt, but rather that he was wise enough to tap “into major trends in the nation’s popular culture and industry” (62).

Manring goes on to talk about what purpose minstrelsy served in American culture. Having gained enormous popularity in the 1840s, minstrel shows “were still common in American theaters throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and continued in some places even in the years following World War II” (66). That’s a surprisingly long time! Regarding the purpose it served, though, Manring says that the “blackface minstrelsy balanced an envy of the supposedly pastoral, indolent lives of southern African Americans with an ostensibly realistic mocking of African-American mannerisms and speech—it was both an act of love and theft” (66). I think this is an interesting analysis (though I’m not entirely sure the love in the act would be entirely clear to the Black people who saw it). Another important point Manring makes is that “this staging of the pejorative quality of blackness was really an act of creating whiteness, reminding white audiences that regardless of whatever trials they faced at work or home, they were uplifted by their race” (66). In other words, it was a way for white people to pull themselves up to stand on the broken shoulders of the already downtrodden. Nice.

The article moves from there to what happened after Rutt sold his product to another manufacturer, R.T. Davis, and the process Davis used to make the pancake mix a national brand. The key was to find a real person to represent Aunt Jemima. Nancy Green was the original; she had been born a slave in Kentucky. Manring explains “she greeted guests and cooked pancakes, all the while singing and telling stories of life on the plantation.” The motto under her picture was “I’se in town, honey” (75). Oy. As I mentioned, any number of myths developed around Green—some aided by her own storytelling skills, evidently. However, what’s remarkable is that no one figured out that Aunt Jemima might be offensive to anyone for another 120 or so years. The symbolic power of Aunt Jemima was still so strong more than a century later, I remember that (white) people I knew thought it was downright mean-spirited of blacks to dispute Aunt Jemima’s picture on the box of pancake mix. They couldn’t see past the symbol to see how strongly that image contributed to their own marginalizing of the race. It’s an interesting issue.

I think one question that could be asked about this whole discussion is whether or not there might be some value in embracing the symbol (as well as the myth)—sort of the way queer culture embraced Hitler’s pink triangle assignation. Maybe Aunt Jemima is a valuable remembrance, in the spirit of “never forget, never repeat.” I don’t know. The interesting part of the below-the-surface racial tension in America right now is that it is nearly impossible for a white person to offer an opinion…so maybe I should keep my mouth shut.

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