IOWA CITY — African American stereotypes have been used to sell food, cleaning products and other household goods for more than a century, with some of the most successful brands — including Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s — remaining on grocery store shelves until recent pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement.
The images are cruel, inaccurate and embarrassing, but many curators and collectors believe Americans need to see images like these to understand what African Americans have endured and to recognize the stereotypes still shaping our culture.
James Hicks, 72, of Iowa City, has been an antique collector for decades, but his collecting shifted when he saw a Green River Whiskey ad that featured an African American in a derogatory way.
“I had never, ever seen anything like it,” he said. “A lot of companies used stereotypical images of Black people to sell stuff.”
Hicks has combed through auctions and estate sales across the Midwest to amass more than 1,300 historic artifacts and Black memorabilia documenting the African American experience.
He has dozens of product labels and trade cards featuring African American caricatures developed for minstrel shows, in which white people went in blackface and made fun of Black people.
Included among these characters was “Mammy,” a heavyset matron in a headscarf; “Jim Dandy” or “Zip Coon,” a sharply dressed Black man who isn’t very smart; Uncle Tom, an old man who trusts and supports the institution of slavery, and pickaninnies, Black children with fuzzy hair and, often, only partially clothed.
Doris Montag, a freelance curator in Iowa City, helped Hicks organize his collection and researched how Black caricatures were used to sell household goods — mostly to white customers.
“The products were associated with the competency slaves had,” Montag said.
Cooking, cleaning, child care and working with livestock were typical jobs for enslaved people, she said. After slavery ended, many people still had Black maids and house cleaners.
“I think the Mammy was used the most in house domestic wares,” she said.
On product labels, Mammy was often seen caring for white children or with steaming bowls of food. But advertisers were careful not to make Mammy too pretty because they didn’t want to evoke the white woman’s fear her husband would be interested in the servants, Montag said.
The Aunt Jemima first featured on a pancake flour box in the 1890s was clearly a Mammy caricature with a kerchief, checkered dress and shawl. In fact, Quaker Oats based that label on Nancy Green, a Kentucky woman who was enslaved before the Civil War, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Quaker revised the image in 1989, giving Aunt Jemima shiny curls and earrings. Last month the company announced it will retire the product name, rebranding the syrup produced in Cedar Rapids.
“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” said Kristin Kroepfl, chief marketing officer for Quaker Oats Co. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”
Quaker also will donate at least $5 million by 2025 toward engagement and support in the Black community.
Glossing over slavery
Male African American caricatures were more often seen on products like coffee, tobacco or liquor — things considered vices, Montag said. One Green River Whiskey ad shows a Black man in a top hat and jacket with patched pants, likely an older Jim Dandy, leading a horse with a jug that says “Green River, the whiskey without a headache.” The caption at the bottom says “She was bred in old Kentucky.”
Hicks’s collection has several depictions of pickaninnies, often making a mess or eating watermelon. One trade card from J.H. Lester & Co., a hardware store in South English, Iowa, advertising “stoves, tinware, cutlery, iron, nails, pumps. etc.” shows a Black child with cartoonishly big lips swatting a wasp away from a watermelon slice in his lap.
“Part of the problem for me, is the horrific caricature of the Black people, with bright red lips and bugged-out eyes,” said Venise Berry, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Iowa and an author of several books, including “Racialism and the Media: Black Jesus, Black Twitter, and the First Black American President,” slated to publish this summer.
Berry said she thinks stores and companies that used African American stereotypes in the late 1800s and early 1900s were trying to gloss over slavery by showing Black people smiling and doing everyday things.
“During that time there was a constant need to make slavery acceptable, to make it something that was not as ugly and problematic as it really was,” Berry said. “If you see a little Black child eating watermelon, it’s seen as a stereotype, but it’s more normal than picking cotton.”
Race in modern ads
Some of the worst stereotypes have gone away, but others persist, Berry said.
She points to a modern Pine-Sol ad showing Diane Amos, a Black actor who has been in Pine-Sol print and TV ads for years, beautifully made up with a satin dress and glossy hair holding a small bottle of the yellow cleaning product with the word “Intensity” across the image.
“A twisted version of the Mammy today is the ad by Pine-Sol,” Berry said. “For some white people, the Mammy raised kids. Kids raised by Mammies came to love the Mammy. At the same time, the Mammy character has been seen as fighting for the ‘Big House,’ protecting the white family.”
Another stereotype is of the Black man as a basketball player, reinforced with a modern Kool-Aid ad that shows a retro image of a Black couple, maybe from the early 1980s, with the man’s foot balanced on a basketball. The message on the bottom of the ad is “Old school flavor, now in sugar free.”
“He doesn’t even look like he plays basketball,” Berry said. “Why is that basketball necessary in that picture? That’s really important to understanding stereotypes are something we — Black or white — have come to accept.”
Many companies are adding diversity to their ads and normalizing same-sex and interracial relationships. Berry points to a 2013 Cheerios commercial in which a multiracial little girl asks her white mom if Cheerios are good for your heart. When the mom says yes, the girl pours a pile on her sleeping father, who is Black.
“There was a huge controversy about this mixed couple,” Berry said. But “as mixed couples have become more prominent in our society, it’s acceptable to have more mixed couples in advertising.”
Felicite Wolfe, curator at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, said that while the advertising images from the late 1800s and early 1900s are offensive, it’s important for the public to see them. Wolfe doesn’t shy away from exhibits or items that might provoke difficult emotions.
“Though these images are disturbing and horrifying, they are a part of American history, a history we aren’t taught in school, and our history as many are realizing now, is not a pretty one,” Wolfe said. “By showing the item and discussing its history, people can begin to have a deeper understanding of our country’s history and the issues that remain which we are seeing in full force today.”
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