Editor’s Plate: It’s Time for Food Marketers To Let Go of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben

July 7, 2020
Even if you don’t see the point, there’s no good reason to retain them.

Up until a year or so ago, I had a small wooden box in a drawer that held needles and a couple spools of thread, more than enough sewing tools for a man, especially in my bachelor days. Glued across the lid – I think the term is decoupage – was “My love for you knows no season,” probably a sincere sentiment at the time from a college girlfriend.

That sentiment means nothing to me now, and that college romance didn’t even last a year. I’ve long, long ago lost track of her. But the box remained the perfect size for a couple needles and two or three spools of thread. So why throw it out? You get my point, right?

Well, forty-some years later my wife didn’t get my point. As benign as that sentiment was to me over the years and up to a year or so ago, it didn’t seem so harmless to my wife. It was not really threatening, not a constant, wistful reminder of the one that got away. It was just a box, a reasonably practical container for some rarely used semi-essentials.

But it was at least awkward and maybe painful for my wife, so it had to go. And it did. And I don’t miss it. And it’s been replaced by a clear plastic zipper pouch, which does just as good a job at holding needles and a couple spools of thread.

I hope I’ve managed a metaphor for Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben and possibly a handful of other brand icons with racist or otherwise questionable original meanings. News stories of the past month say their current owners – PepsiCo and Mars, respectively – are working on rebranding, acknowledging that past, attractive updates of the characters (pearl earrings replaced Aunt Jemima’s head scarf in 1989) are not enough to make up for their origins. The moves have stirred some debate.

After 130 or so years, the origins of those brands and the faces that represent them have been largely – but not entirely – forgotten. I’m sure they mean as little and evoke as little to today’s white people as that sewing box did to me. But why retain them if they hurt even one person?

Ironically, we also carried a news story about the descendants of two Aunt Jemima's who want those images retained because they show how their ancestors worked hard during segregated times to become successes.

The following history was dug up by our Senior Editor Pan Demetrakakes in a blog post he wrote in mid-June:

Let’s not forget why elderly Black people were addressed (by whites) as “aunt” and “uncle” in the first place: It was because most Southern white people, from before the Civil War through the Jim Crow era, refused to call Black people “Miss,” “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Adults of all ages got called by their first names; when they got old enough, “aunt” or “uncle” were tacked on as a sort of twisted parody of an honorific.

The history of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben is firmly rooted in this kind of racist condescension. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was created in 1889, and its creators hired a former enslaved woman to be its living face, starting with an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. There’s more, but you get the idea. Uncle Ben’s started similarly, with the face modeled after a Chicago maitre d’s.

I bet most of you, like me, didn’t know that history. After all, that stuff happened 100 or more years ago. And we don’t practice that kind of racism anymore, do we? Do we?

But if they offend one person or embolden one Confederate flag-waving racist, then it is indeed time for them to go. Ditto for the Confederate flag.

There’s no need to rewrite our history; it got us to the enviable place we are today. That college romance of mine in some small way contributed to the man I am today; there’s no need to deny it existed.

But it was over even before the second semester was, and that’s where it should remain – not on the cover of a little sewing box.