Product Spokespersons

I hope that nobody reads Billy Masters’ column for great insights on race relations.  Last week, my dear friend Jenifer Lewis took me to task in a loving, but firm way.  “Of course you need to be told these things because they’re not part of your background…but you shouldn’t need to be told these things.”  So, whether I should or shouldn’t know everything about racial inequality, I am making an effort.

I’ve been reading with great interest about this Aunt Jemima controversy.  I am old enough to remember seeing the pancake purveyor dressed with a kerchief in her hair.  I also remember 1989, when she got a makeover – the kerchief came off, she put on lipstick and pearl earrings, and kinda resembled Roxie Roker from The Jeffersons.  Once again, Jemima is getting a makeover – she’s being completely erased.  This made me wonder – if they replace a glamorous African-American woman with someone like Ann B. Davis or Shirley Booth, who does that help?  It surely doesn’t help the family of Anna Short Harrington – the lady who portrayed the venerable Aunt from 1935 to 1954.  Anna was the great-grandmother of Larnell Evans Sr., and he’s pissed off.  “This is an injustice for me and my family.  This is part of my history, sir” – one always takes note of someone who uses the word “sir”.  “This woman served all those people…and it was AFTER slavery.  She worked as Aunt Jemima.  That was her job.  How do you think I feel as a Black man sitting here telling you about my family history they’re trying to erase?” 

So I delved deeper and learned about some other famous faces used to purvey products.  Like Uncle Ben.  Didya know he was based on an African-American farmer in Texas who supplied above-average rice to the US military?  The man pictured on the package is Frank Brown, the maitre d’hôtel of an elite Chicago restaurant.  In 2007, the character of Ben was upgraded from a rice grower to the chairman of the board.  Then there’s Frank L. White.  He was born in Barbados and immigrated to the US in 1875.  He achieved such renown as a master chef, he was recruited to become the face of Rastus, the chef on the box of Cream of Wheat.  To me – admittedly a white male of dubious privilege – I see these as iconic symbols to be learned from.  But soon, they’ll all be erased.  Progress.

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