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.