Black Minstrels on the Breakfast Table

While drafting my fall syllabus for AP United states history, I thought about how I might go about teaching the antebellum south; I do not like the way I teach it now; it is too simple, detached, uncomplicated, and fast. Thus I thought about placing the center of the unit on southern class differentiation. I am talking about the class struggle between whites — a classic Marxist paradigm that is commonly used by historians to explore the class history of the South. One way of doing this is by looking at how the haves spent their leisure time; one way was by attending minstrel shows.

Many southern schools depicted the black-face notion to portray a sense of position: The South operated in a Caste like construction arguably until the 1970s. Once while in college at Harding University, I was looking through old year books at the racial composition of the school in preparation for a research paper on race and religion in the South. While doing this, I came across a picture in which white students painted their faces black and their lips red as a depiction of the American Negro. I was caught off guard because this took place during a chapel ceremony. This was taking place at schools all across the country.

This black minstrel still lives on today; however, it survives in the form of our favorite food: Aunt Jemima. She is not eating watermellons, but she does have the house negro appeal dating back to slavery. She reminds us of the black nanny.

It is sometimes said that Gone With the Wind cannot be regarded as a classic because of the racist attitudes, not only of the characters (which would be in keeping with the time) but of the author. While it is undeniable that the novel is generally pro-slavery, and does display racist attitudes, this aspect of the novel is wrongly over-emphasised. There are mixtures of admirable and less admirable black characters, as there are white characters. Scarlett’s nanny, Mammy, in particular is a strong character and important to the story.

Dismissing Gone With the Wind as racist also ignores the examination Mitchell makes of the racism of the Yankees, who fought a war to free the slaves but (at least in the book) personally wanted little to do with the unfamiliar blacks once they were free. In one telling scene Scarlett, who was raised by a black nanny, suggests to some Yankee ladies that they employ a black girl as their nanny, only to be met with horrified reactions.

As for Aunt Jemima, the book Slave in a Box; The Strange career of Aunt Jemima addresses the inherent issue of race:

The figure of the mammy occupies a central place in the lore of the Old South and has long been used to illustrate distinct social phenomena, including racial oppression and class identity. In the early twentieth century, the mammy became immortalized as Aunt Jemima, the spokesperson for a line of ready-mixed breakfast products. Although Aunt Jemima has undergone many makeovers over the years, she apparently has not lost her commercial appeal; her face graces more than forty food products nationwide and she still resonates in some form for millions of Americans.

In Slave in a Box, M.M. Manring addresses the vexing question of why the troubling figure of Aunt Jemima has endured in American culture. Manring traces the evolution of the mammy from her roots in the Old South slave reality and mythology, through reinterpretations during Reconstruction and in minstrel shows and turn-of-the-century advertisements, to Aunt Jemima’s symbolic role in the Civil Rights movement and her present incarnation as a “working grandmother.” We learn how advertising entrepreneur James Webb Young, aided by celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth, skillfully tapped into nostalgic 1920s perceptions of the South as a culture of white leisure and black labor. Aunt Jemima’s ready-mixed products offered middle-class housewives the next best thing to a black servant: a “slave in a box” that conjured up romantic images of not only the food but also the social hierarchy of the plantation South.

The initial success of the Aunt Jemima brand, Manring reveals, was based on a variety of factors, from lingering attempts to reunite the country after the Civil War to marketing strategies around World War I. Her continued appeal in the late twentieth century is a more complex and disturbing phenomenon we may never fully understand. Manring suggests that by documenting Aunt Jemima’s fascinating evolution, however, we can learn important lessons about our collective cultural identity.

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8 thoughts on “Black Minstrels on the Breakfast Table

  1. This is an interesting topic. Few really think about how race and culture impacts their syrup. We could go on and on here. Chicken and water mellon seem to be driving forces with food and race.

  2. Wow, Carson, I really dug this post. It seems to hit home with me on two counts. This first is your discussion of “Gone with the Wind.” Like many of us, as a kid, I really dug that movie. But, at some point my parents sat me down and talked to me about how I should really be thinking critically about the film, and not just blindly watching it.

    Of course, as a 10 year old, I wasn’t sure what the hell they were talking about. OK, I got that there were the obvious racist, pro-slavery, positions. But, the Mammy character just reminded me of my grandmother. Only later did I realize my parents were onto something. You’re right, the film (I haven’t read the book to compare) is also just a good film in many respects. However, there is no denying that as an adult, it can make me cringe.

    The other thing is the character of Aunt Jemima. My own grandmother looks and dresses much like a white version of her. She doesn’t use the syrup, she makes her own (making the association even stronger), but as a kid who idolized his grandmother, I always associated anyone in a home-keeper role with her–and this included Aunt Jemima.

    Obviously, the racist undertones (and overtones) are there. But, I’m curious about the current legacy of the images themselves of both Aunt Jemima and Mammy, in the minds of young people (and in my case young-ish people).

    For people like me, at 31, who grew up in homes where our Moms worked and were FAR from domestic, any link at all with a domestic caretaker is a kind of nostalgia much removed from personal experience. My only link is that of my own grandmother. To HER, an older southern woman, these images probably have deep connotations rooted in some personal experience. She grew up on a farm, poor, but still white in a then extremely racist south. But, to me, only my education gives me any intellectual understanding. Outside of that, my personally understanding is at total odds.

    An extreme (and silly) case of how naivety, and lack of experience, can influence someones view of something is my girlfriend. As a kid she was convinced that the Def Lepard song “Poor Some Sugar on Me” was Literally about candy falling from the sky. And she still has a hard time accepting in her heart (though her mind has caught up) that the song is about something “else”.

    So, it’s an interesting anthropological question. How do the responses to images like these change over time in a culture when the images become so far removed from their source?

  3. This was a VERY interesting post. Coincidentally I used Aunt Jemima this morning to make pancakes.

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  5. I have never been able to watch Gone With the Wind in it’s entirety. Not even as a child. My mother loved this movie and i could never understand why. We question too often how others view the image of blacks or african americans in this country. As african americans. It would behoove us…to focus more intently on how we see ourselves.

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