At The Table with Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima

20141001_122956(This isn’t poetry, but it’s my blog)

I like to eat well, and, by my definition, that includes using as little processed and prepared food on my plates as possible.

Of course, I frequently break rules when I’ve got other interests going on and lately, I’ve had quite a few beautiful “distractions” that leave me less interested in the magic of my kitchen. So, sometimes, I cheat.

Today was one such day that I pulled the lone secret orange box from my cabinet, loaded with phosphates, hydrolized proteins, and far too much sodium. As I broke down my box for recycling, I considered the smiling “Uncle Ben” at the top of the box and shook my head at how the world losses its innocence as we age. As a child, I never thought anything of names and images like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemimah, the latter who accompanied my grandmother’s incredible breakfasts like a token of culinary magic without whom the pancakes and waffles and french toasts just wouldn’t have been possible. It wasn’t until I got much older and started to learn about the quite racist etymology of otherwise seemingly endearing terms like “uncle.”

Stirring the rice, I began to wonder why the name was still allowed to go forward, while we spend years debating a team called the “Redskins” and people secretly debate, without their affected peers, if it’s “African American” or “black.” I had little doubts that the companies were also, given the time they’ve been around, owned by whites and very likely did not directly provide any charitable benefit to organizations with social justice causes.

I’m not a fan of assumptions, so I decided to do some research.

Uncle Ben’s

  • Brand belonging to Mars (traditionally known as the candy company, although they have other products, such as this rice)
  • Forrest Mars Sr. acquires rights to parboiled rice in 1942, although he had absolutely nothing to do with the discovery of the process (which began in Asia and then was modified later by a German-British scientist)
  • the Uncle Ben brand name is created and the name is based on a black Texas farmer known as “Uncle Ben” and, whose full name, at least by my research, seems to escape history in favour of the racist moniker, but was said to be a great rice cook in Houston
  • the image used for Uncle Ben is Frank Brown, a chef and waiter from Chicago
  • In 1971, the image actually was removed from packaging, but was restored in 1983 for the 40th anniversary. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find either why it was removed or restored.
  • In 2012, they began offering a “Ben’s Beginners” contest to encourage child-bearing families to cook together; however, it requires the ability to take and submit a video, which cuts out accessibility to several people.
  • The company is private, still owned entirely by the Mars family.
  • 81 years and counting using a racist name and the image of a man who did not receive royalties or payments beyond the one to have his photograph used.

Aunt Jemima

  • Two white men start Aunt Jemima as their own company, using the name based on a black nanny figure in a minstrel show.
  • They sell it to another white man, who makes history as one of the first black women to model and be a spokesperson for a corporate trademark in the 1890’s. She uses her career to be an activist and work in philanthropy until her death early in 1923 (car accident). Nobody replaces her.
  • Quaker Oats buys the company almost thirty years in (1920’s, after Nancy Green’s death) and, in 1933, revive Aunt Jemima with Anna Robinson, who was Aunt Jemima until 1951 (with her own death).
  • A few years later, Aylene Lewis begins representing Aunt Jemima.
  • It’s not until 1989 that the bandana is removed from the image of Aunt Jemima and replaced with a curly do, pearls, and a lace collar.
  • Quaker Oats, under whom the brand still falls, is owned now by PepsiCo, whose top shareholders are an Indian woman, a Sudan man, and three white men.

Now, I wonder again, why are these names still allowed when “aunt” and “uncle” were colloquial terms used because slaves were not allowed formal titles (mister, miss, doctor, etc)? There is no grace in the companies being quite charitable and raising awareness of social injustices; there is not a single black person financially benefiting from the representations of the Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemima brand; why is this okay?

Redskins. Aunt Jemima. Uncle Ben. Eskimo Pies. The list gets endless when you really start listening and looking. Beyond names, what of the images of the little Land O’ Lakes butter girl? The little Chief Wahoo (personally, I think he’s more offensive than the Redskins); some will say I’m going too far, but there’s a fine line between exploitation and homage. And I think there are those that are hesitant to address the question because it requires work to not only draw a line but then correct those behind it: are Boston Celtics a racist name? The Fighting Irish? Does this mean more work in cleaning up those mascots too? Perhaps not these names, but it’s worth drawing up a list to review to be sure we are checking ourselves. We cannot be lazy – it’s in our laziness these things continue on for so long, hurting those represented.

If anyone really cares for more reasons than it’s hip to hate on the Redskins right now, we have to be moving forward with a whole list of names and brands (particularly Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben) that must change for America to really step up our game of respect for all cultures.

Give Sharkey a piece of your mind.

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