Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Politics of Breakfast

Rooster Girl eats breakfast like a full-grown man. She can and will eat more scrambled eggs than K.

She horks hers down, finishing before the rest of us and then makes the sign for more and points at our plates.


Give me your eggs, dammit!

I was thinking that if Rooster threw a party, the top names on her guest list would be Bob Evans, The Quaker Oats Man and Aunt Jemima.

Then I started thinking about Aunt Jemima.

How long had it been since I last saw Aunt Jemima? Surely
she couldn't still be Mammy as she was when I was a child. Surely we've come farther than that, right?

I did a google image search to find her. Here's what she looked like in the 1970's when I was growing up:


I also found this more radical (and true) illustration and a lot of scholarly writing about african-american exploitation in advertising.

aunt jemima slave in a box

As I looked up images of Aunt Jemima, I found this ad by Haddon Sunblom from 1955.
It speaks for itself.


Then I found this great image from when Aunt Jemima joined
the Black Panther party and fought back.

Make your own damned pancakes.

aunt jemima fights back

It turns out that Aunt Jemima is now a beautiful, African-American woman who looks like she has a great recipe for pancakes, but Cracker, you're going to have to make them yourself.


I'm a mother who thinks about race, class and power.

An innocent blog entry about my daughters breakfast led me somewhere political.

Writing this, I paused and called an African-American friend of mine to ask her about Aunt Jemima.

She talked about how hurtful the image was and still is today - even with the update. My friend feels like the new image still suggests Aunt Jemima is a subservient caretaker who doesn't seem to have a life beyond making white people breakfast. She's not called Ms. Jemima Smith, she's still your "Aunt Jemima."

How will I teach my children to understand the issues of race in America and to be allied with all kinds of people that don't look exactly like them?


Deb said...

I think it is awesome that you worry about those things. To me it is simply pancake mix that I like. It could be a big yellow booger on the box and it would still be the pancake mix I like. I never thought of it as racist. But after reading your post I can see that it is.

But if you want to know what is really racist from our childhood, I mean racist beyond a shadow of a doubt, watch the old Tom & Jerry Cartoons...whew RACIST

Diana said...

I buy Bisquick.

My breakfast used to be Aunt Jemima topped with Mrs. Butterworth when i was a kid. Nobody ever told me 'what it meant'. It's amazing when you look into stuff the things you find. Tough issue, but I find that kids are being a lot more open-minded nowadays...

Melissa said...

I think awareness and these kinds of questions, discussed with kids in an open, informal, and consistent way helps a lot.

I tend to ask the boys something like, "Tell me about this picture, please. What do you see here? What's going on? Why do you think she looks like that? Whose Aunt is she anyway, so then right, why is she called that?", etc. And then have that discussion just anytime something comes up.

Kids are already programmed just right when it comes to racial, gender, sexual orientation, ability, whatever differences. They're fine. We're the ones who mess it all up and so I kind of feel like I'm discussing what stupid grownups do most of the time.

Momish said...

Sounds to me like you are already teaching your children how to ally with people who simply don't look like them. You are doing that by example and that is the most powerful lesson we can ever give our kids!

It's funny, but I always thought that the moniker Aunt Jamima was heartwarming. I never saw it as derogatory. The term aunt makes me feel like she is family, not my maid (as if I would know what it is like to have a maid). However, I do not find "Uncle Sam" to be very warm and fuzzy, mind you.

jen said...

this is a brilliant post. nicely done.

And i totally agree.

blog_antagonist said...

Well, as you know from one of my recent posts, the whole race thing has been on my mind a lot lately. This is just one more troubling aspect of the issue. What troubles me most, is that I never thought of it in those terms until your post.

But, like the little black Sambo that fishes in my in-laws goldfish pond, Aunt Jemima is clearly a symbol of white superiority and black marginilization. How sad that we loved her for generations and never gave a thought to it.

Great post. Very thought provoking.

Anonymous said...

Wow-that's a whole lotta thinkin' for so early in the morning. But very, very true.

I like the black power one, with the fist coming out of the box. When the revolution comes, we won't be makin' no damn pancakes whitey!

It's amazing how many of these hurtful images we don't even see because we've so thoroughly accepted them as part of the American landscape. Your post is definitely a reminder of how important it is to be a critical thinker.

Oh-and I'd put Jenna up against Ruby in a scrambled eggs eating contest any day. But I won't be responsible for any diaper changes afterwards...

Sayre said...

To my everlasting joy, my son doesn't see color at all. He has some friends he describes as brown, but to him they are no different from his lighter friends.

When he first came up with the "brown" term, we talked about race a little, mostly in a historical sense because I didn't want to put ANY ideas in his head that were different from what was already there.

Life is already different from the way it was when I was growing up. I had lots of "brown" friends too, but I did get some grief from my light friends. That isn't the case anymore, and I for one, am very glad of it.

Karen said...

I think the most powerful teacher is example, and I think you are on the right track.

My husband is black (he prefers that term rather than african-american), but he does very little to recognize his heritage. His belief is that he is an "american" and a "human" and the rest of it doesn't matter. I understand that, but I think it's important to understand where you come from.

BTW, I updated my blog to explain my experience with "The Sandlot." Thanks for stopping by (again!)!

Betty said...

I applaud you for teaching your children to be worldly and aware of other cultures. But I've never thought of Aunt Jamima's picture as derogatory until you posted those other pictures.

Being Asian, I get my share of derogatory remarks but I don't get hung up on them though. I see other people trying to be so politically correct that they are actually make things worse than they really are.

Anonymous said...

Ruby and Grandma will have an egg eating contest soon. Eggs rule! And breakfast is THE meal of the day.

Kristi said...

Did you ever see Tracy Morgan in the Uncle Jemima skit on SNL. Funny.

It's surprising the image and name of Aunt Jemima is still used, even in the updated version. I once had a youth group leader who's wife decorated their house in blackface mammy memorablia. I was thoroughly appalled.

Fortunately, I think we're seeing less and less of this stuff around today.

The Medium Swede said...

I remember going to the Aunt Jemima restaurant as a child. There was one here in suburban Chicago. I remember being terrified when a kind older African American woman dressed as the character came up to the table to say hello and see how my pancakes were. I was afraid because she was different. Growing up in the late 60s early 70s there were not many people different from us in the suburbs. Thinking about this made me realize how fortunate we are now that our children go to school with all creeds and colors and they are not fazed at all. My wife and I have made it a point to try and make sure that our children are sensitive to all kids.

By the way, I am still kind of afraid of the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz along with the Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka. I have to draw a line somewhere don't I?

Lisa said...

We haven't discussed that stuff yet. We basically just try to teach our son that everyone has feelings. Everyone deserves respect.

Jenny said...

Interesting post. It's odd (and somewhat pathetic) that I gy aunt jemima syrup and never even think of the hurtful stereotypes. I think you just become blind to it.

carmachu said...

I think you have too much time on your hands....get busy making more eggs for ruby....what, do you starve the kid?

Lotta said...

Eggs are good. Protein builds muscles, serve 'em up. I think your daughter will be just fine since she will see and emulate your open mindedness!

Jennifer said...

Ruby's breakfasting habits are like my baby brothers! (Who is now 6'-5", by the way.)

Also, I HAVE THE SAME FEELING about Aunt Jemima... Although if I could find a box of pancake mix with "black power" fist coming through it, I'd be ALL over that.

Sayre said...

After more thought, I wanted to add this... When my son was young and in preschool, we lived in a "redneck" area. The preschool employed a lovely woman named Miss Martha (who looked a lot like Cicely Tyson). We just loved her. Then one day on the way home from school, my son said she was a n****. I know he never heard that word from us, so I asked him - and he said that one of the kids at school told him that.

I explained to him that that word is one meant for hurting people and feelings, like the words dumbbell or idiot, but it was worse because it was meant to hurt the feelings of brown people specifically. Then I asked him how he felt about Miss Martha. He declared his everlasting love for her and said he would never use that word again. And he never has.

I did talk to Miss Martha about it, just to let her know what was going on in the school and she was hurt, but was glad I told her. Forewarned is forearmed in dealing with things like this.

Kristin said...

This why we only do Eggo Waffles.

No, actually I worry about this all the time...

Kevin Charnas said...

Knowing you as I feel like I've been getting to do over the last several months? How will you? I imagine with compassion, empathy and a conscientious, diligent awareness...I would expect nothing less from you and Kevin. Because you two are too cool for anything else.

Great post.

slackermommy said...

Great thought provoking post. I had to look in the pantry to see what syrup I have because I buy whatever is on sale. You guessed it I have Aunt Jemima with the new improved photo. I never thought about it until now. I grew up with her and I never saw her as a derogatory image. I was an adult before I realized that white people having Aunt Jemima cookie jars and figurines in their kitchen was racist. I think it really boils down to what we teach our children.

Jess Riley said...

Great post! I have the same feeling about Uncle Ben's rice.

Mrs. T said...

Although I continue to buy Aunt Jemima pancake mix because I think it's superior to the others, I agree with you. I did have some black friends who actually collected the Aunt Jemima stuff from the 30's, 40's and 50's. She explained that it was almost like they were taking back the image, making it theirs. I don't know.
When I was little, there was a Sambo's restaurant here in my hometown, which closed in the mid 70's. I never thought about it being racist, mostly because I never associated Sambo with any black people that I knew. Like I hope no one associated Quaker Oats guy with anyone in my family, or the kid on the Hillbilly bread wrapper, or the Sunmaid raisin girl.
I know that you will handle any issues of race with your kids with kindness and compassion and insight. The amazing thing is that many times, kids already have a sense of what's right, so you may not have to work too hard at it.

mad muthas said...

this is so much less an issue in the uk - we used to have a brand of jam - robinson's - that based their whole corporate image on golliwogs - please tell me that makes sense in the us. it was all banned and rebranded and sanitised and everything back in the 70s, i think.
we are currently having our own agony, though, over niqab - presumeably you've heard about it. i'm just wondering - could you eat pancakes wearing the veil?

Anonymous said...

The story of the Aunt Jemima brand, like Uncle Ben's Rice etc. is reflective of how far America has come in a few years. When these brands were born, America was openly, frankly racist. Go watch Disney's "Song of the South". I am a white man in my mid sixties, but the overt racism of this "classic" made me feel physically sick and I walked out of it. Racism was a fact of American life until Dr. King held up a mirror for the majority to see themselves. Now, generation by generation it's going. Aunt Jemima may have been a domestic, but she isn't any more. Maybe they'll change the name to Miss Jemima as the next step, but the facts are that Aunt Jemima carries a cachet--it's a really good product and to dump the name is very problematic.
Go back in time and you'll see all the changes in America reflected in the ads and TV commercials we watch. They are, after all, designed to respond to us, where we are. Like it or not, these "black character brands" are reflective of the belief, in the USA, that black folks are very good cooks. If they weren't, we'd likely have "Farmer Brown Pancakes" with a ruddy faced old geezer in overalls. But you know, Aunt Jemima could cook rings around him in the American mind.
As a retired ad man, let me assure you, the only color that advertising is interested in is---green.

Fran said...

This is why I love you, Mama. We started celebrating Dr. King's birthday this year in our house. Frankly, I was scared to bring up the whole race issue because I didn't want to put a lens on skin color and differences as some people see them. D has many friends of many races and he just doesn't see the differences at his age. I think kids have to come into questioning that naturally, just like asking about sex or why things happen. You can't push it because sometimes they need to sit in the childish differences they can live with in the here and now. It's a journey. Love to you!

sweatpantsmom said...

Great post. It's a reminder of what subliminal messages we're constantly being bombarded with.

We use Mrs. Butterworths. The commercial where the glass bottle comes to life always scared the hell out of me when I was little. Now I'll have to Google her to find out what her evil origins are.

MommyWithAttitude said...

Great post! An interesting theory about the creation of the big fat mammy who LOOOOVES makin' pancakes for the white folks, is that it was a way of de-sexualizing a woman who was frequently the target of sexual abuse from the men she worked for/was owned by.

And you're not alone, I think about the politics of breakfast all the time! :)