Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben stereotypes
The history of the mammy stereotype is well-known and documented. This fictitious depiction of black people has been used historically in entertainment and advertising and persists even today. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are widely known icons that exemplify the history and characteristics of the mammy.
WHAT IS THE MAMMY STEREOTYPE
The "mammy" stereotype was created by southern white slave owners mainly as a way to reconcile the relationship between white men and black female slaves. The "mammy" depicted a happy front, which was far from the true reality of black slaves. "Mammy" showed black female slaves as jovial, nurturing, middle-aged caregivers who doted on their white families and enjoyed their subordinate roles. Mammys are depicted as breastfeeding the white family's children, cooking and cleaning, all with kindness, loyalty, and servitude. The mammy is a good companion and even friend to her white family while never questioning the power imbalance. It was important that the mammy figure was fat and undesirable "so no white man could want her over his white wife therefore ‘proving’ that white men did not find black women sexually desirable." Fictitious mammys have been written into history in order to show slavery in a humane light. In reality, black female slaves were generally young, thin, and often sexually exploited by their owners. Highlighting Mammys after the civil war was a way to encourage black women to remain in domestic servitude; in the media, black women were portrayed only "in the role of domestics and advisors to the mistress of the house, being represented as nothing more than an eternal Mammy."
Male versions of the "mammy" also exist. They have similar characteristics: jovial, submissive, and friendly with white people. Whites historically have addressed elderly black people as "Uncle" or "Aunt" because titles such as "Mr." and "Mrs." were regarded as superior titles for whites only. Famous black "aunts" and "uncles" are likely to be mammys.
HISTORY OF THE "MAMMY" STEREOTYPE in AUNT JEMIMA
The origins of Aunt Jemima can be traced back to a slave song. Billy Kersands, a black performer, used that slave song as the inspiration for his song, "Old Aunt Jemima," which he wrote in 1875. Some of the lyrics go: "My old missus promise me . . .When she died she-d set me free . . . She lived so long her head got bald . . . She swore she would not die at all . . ."
The song was very popular in minstrel shows. In the late 19th century, minstrel shows became very popular in the United States. White people performed comedy skits or variety acts and danced to music. Black roles were performed by white actors in blackface and depicted black people as idiotic buffoons. When "Old Aunt Jemima" started to be performed at minstrel shows, Aunt Jemima became a popular blackface character.
Aunt Jemima's pancake mix got its start in 1889. Chriss Rutt and Charles Underwood developed a self-rising pancake mix and decided to name their product after Aunt Jemima after seeing a minstrel show. It's interesting to note that the self-rising flour mix was intended to make life easier for its consumers, just as a slave "mammy" was intended to make the lives of her white owners easier. Rutt and Underwood sold their business in 1890 to the Davis Milling Company.
The Davis Milling Company expanded on the use of "Aunt Jemima" as a mammy and the face of their pancake mix. They hired Nancy Green to portray a real-life Aunt Jemima. Nancy Green was a former slave who portrayed Aunt Jemima as the perfect "mammy": she "dressed as Aunt Jemima, sang songs, cooked pancakes, and told romanticized stories about the Old South." Using Nancy Green was wildly successful for the Davis Milling Company to the extent that they even renamed the company to the Aunt Jemima Mills Company in 1914. Their success is attributed to the fact that they weren't just selling pancake mix--they were selling Aunt Jemima and the "mammy" fantasy. Indeed, Davis Milling Company told a heartwarming story to its pancake-mix customers: they began to distribute Aunt Jemima's "life story" (remember, she is a fictitious character), wherein Aunt Jemima had been a slave at a plantation famous for its pancakes; after the civil war, the Davis Milling Company paid Aunt Jemima in gold to share her recipe with them. This fictitious origin story only further perpetuates the "black mammy" stereotype because the white man "saves" Aunt Jemima by richly compensating her for the recipe.
In the early 1900s, the Davis Milling Company began to utilize advertisements that showed the story of Aunt Jemima's fictitious background. They showed images of Nancy Green and nostalgic southern plantations on billboards and full-page magazine ads. The message was always about evoking feelings back to the time of slaves, where whites "had the ultimate labor-saving device: a slave."
Nancy Green died in 1923. There was not another Aunt Jemima until Anna Robinson reprised the role ten years later, 1933. By this time, the Quaker Oats Company owned the Aunt Jemima brand, and they expanded even further into the "mammy" stereotype. The new Aunt Jemima was much heavier and of darker complexion--playing right back into the core characteristics of the stereotypical "mammy". During this time, celebrities loved posing with Aunt Jemima. This was great for the Quaker Oats Company, but really demonstrates that people thought of "having" a "mammy" as a status symbol, much like owning a slave.
During the first half of the 20th century, the "mammy" was gaining popularity as a stereotype and many different "mammys" were depicted on film, television, and radio, although none so popular as Aunt Jemima. One example is the film, Imitation of Life, which tells the story of Aunt Delilah, a mammy with a very similar tale to that of Aunt Jemima. Another film, Gone with the Wind, showcased the mammy Hattie McDaniel.
Aunt Jemima was again revised during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. In a bid to appear less racist, the Quaker Oats Company lightened Aunt Jemima's skin, replaced her bandana with a headband, and made her thinner and more youthful. Aunt Jemima also spoke less. The Quaker Oats Company's new Aunt Jemima was more of a house slave than ever with her new characteristics. Into the second half of the 20th century, people began protesting the continued racism depicted by Aunt Jemima, and advertisements and appearances showing the mammy began to dwindle. The Quaker Oats Company, in response, gave the mammy another makeover in 1989 to "celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the icon...repositioning [her] as a 'black, working, grandmother.'" They took away the headband and gave her black curly hair and pearl earrings, but the "mammy" inside of Aunt Jemima still shone through. At her core, Aunt Jemima was still a black, obedient female who lived to serve.
The Aunt Jemima of today is rarely advertised, but the Quaker Oats Company still uses the "mammy" trope to sell products. Their website states that today, “Aunt Jemima Pancakes stand for warmth, nourishment and trust – qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who want the very best for their families.” The Quaker Oats Company continues to focus, not on the food, but on the "mammy," someone you can count on to feed and care for you.
UNLCE BEN STEREOTYPE
Gordon L. Harwell created Uncle Ben's Rice in 1946. "Uncle Ben" was based both off a renowned Texas rice farmer and a maitre d' known to Harwell. He is portrayed as an elderly, bow-tie wearing slave. "Uncle" is basically the male equivalent of a mammy. They are shown as the jovial friends of white people, defenders of slavery, and gentle servants.
MAMMY STEREOTYPES USED TODAY
Since the mammy was such a domestic figure, many companies today borrow characteristics of the mammy to promote cleaning and cooking products. This is more subtle today. Examples include Diane Amos, the Pine-Sol lady, who bears a striking resemblance to Aunt Jemima.
Tyler Perry has "re-appropriated" the mammy stereotype in his character Madea. Although the modern "mammy" is supposed to be seen as a powerful matriarch, Madea certainly shares characteristics with classic mammys. She a loving, wise caregiver who holds her family together while also being a source of comic relief.
Tyler Perry again perpetuates the mammy stereotype in his television series "The Haves & Have Nots." The character, Hannah Young "serves as a maid to the Pryors, a white affluential family. She has strong Christian values and enjoys serving her white boss." Even though Hannah is very opinionated, her character's main function is to serve a white family.
The Help, while telling the story of racism and oppression, also perpetuates the mammy stereotype with the character Aibileen, who is mostly depicted as a devoted servant to a white family. In fact, she "finds contentment in raising white children." Aibileen's character is physically representative of the mammy stereotype as well, as her "uniform is very conservative, her top has zero cleavage and although she does show a little leg due to her skirt, she wears stockings to cover her legs."
The mammy stereotype can also be seen in television programs like "What's Happening" and "The Jeffersons." Although these sitcoms are older, they are still in syndication and the characters of Mabel Thomas in "What's Happening" and Florence in "The Jeffersons" still perpetuate the mammy stereotype.
John Coffey in "The Green Mile" is a modern-day example of an Uncle Ben (or Uncle Tom, as these are often used interchangeably). Coffey, a large black man, is on death row for a crime he didn't commit, just as Tom is enslaved in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." However, despite is dire circumstances, "the story expects him to keep saving white people. He heals many of the white characters within the film and still goes willingly to death for a crime he did not commit."
Morgan Freeman's Hoke character in "Driving Miss Daisy" is a classic example of the Uncle Ben (Tom) stereotype. Just as Uncle Tom was hired as a chauffeur in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," so is Hoke, whose job it is to drive around an older white lady. Hoke's sole passion appears to be driving Miss Daisy around and just as Uncle Tom becomes Eva's closest friend in the book, Hoke is told he is Miss Daisy's best friend as she becomes senile and more dependent.
In the television series "Scandal," the character Olivia Pope plays a female Uncle Ben (Tom) as she "constantly falls prey to secret B6-13 agent Jake Ballard and President Fitzgerald Grant, [but] continues to go to great risks and measures to ensure that they are vindicated and safe." As both Jake Ballard and President Fitzgerald Grant are white, it appears that Olivia Pope is more concerned with their protection and success than her own.
This article from the Weekly Challenger includes many historic Aunt Jemima advertisements.
Pinterest has dozens of images of Aunt Jemima in prime mammy mode: heavy, jolly-looking black women serving pancakes to white children. Historic advertisements can also be found.
The mammy stereotype was created by white people to humanize slavery and reconcile the relationship between whites and black slaves. The use of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to sell food products demonstrates the mammy message that black people are gentle servants meant to serve white people and families. Though the image of the mammy has been reimagined over the years, the stereotype still purveys much of that jolly, selfless, care-taking servant that was the original mammy.