Revisiting Aunt Jemima: 'Slave in a Box' For a look at the Aunt Jemima phenomenon both historically and culturally, Farai Chideya talks with Maurice Manring, author of Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.
NPR logo

Revisiting Aunt Jemima: 'Slave in a Box'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6709995/6709996" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Revisiting Aunt Jemima: 'Slave in a Box'

Revisiting Aunt Jemima: 'Slave in a Box'

Revisiting Aunt Jemima: 'Slave in a Box'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6709995/6709996" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

For a look at the Aunt Jemima phenomenon both historically and culturally, Farai Chideya talks with Maurice Manring, author of Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And for a historical look at how companies have used African-Americans to market their goods I spoke with Maurice Manring. He's the author of a book called, “Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.” I asked him if he sees any comparison between the modern-day marketing of someone like, say, like B. Smith and the legacy of black characters like Aunt Jemima.

Mr. MAURICE MANRING (Author, “Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima”): I don't see the main component of Aunt Jemima advertising in what she's doing. Aunt Jemima advertising played on a certain type of nostalgia and a certain type of racial nostalgia, particularly in the first half of the 20th century about how great plantation life was and how great it was to -literally, to have someone like Aunt Jemima who would make the pancakes or whatever for you. And what Ms. Smith seems to be selling more is in the line of the modern lifestyle guru whose efficiency of doing everything is something you're supposed to emulate and not something that you're supposed to simply employ.

CHIDEYA: Let's turn to, really, the thesis of your book, which is that Aunt Jemima products where giving middle-class housewives this nostalgic look back at a time when people had a black servant, at least some people had black servants. A slave in a box, that's a pretty touchy claim, isn't it?

Mr. MANRING: Yeah, I think so. I mean I'm certain the current owners of the trademark don't like it a lot. But when you look at old Aunt Jemima ads, you see constantly at a time when middle-class housewives were not able to employ servants, they weren't able to employ their black maid as easily as they did in previous decades, you see constant notation in the ads that you can't have Aunt Jemima today but you can have her recipe and that's the next best thing. This comes in an era of what were constantly positioned as labor-saving products, you know, mixed foods, vacuum cleaners, things like that. But the labor that was saved was the labor that used to be employed by a servant, not the labor that was employed by the housewife.

And so what we're talking really about is trying to ease the transition from having someone do something for you to doing it yourself, and that's where the slavery nostalgia was particularly effective.

CHIDEYA: What's happened to the image of Aunt Jemima? There were other characters like Uncle Ben who's on rice, but Aunt Jemima is still on different boxes. She's changed, you know, I believe she's not wearing the head rag anymore, is that correct?

Mr. MANRING: No, no. No do-rag anymore. She dropped that on her 100th birthday in 1989, and has curly, gray hair. She still doesn't talk anymore and she hasn't actually spoken since the 1960s. I think that she persists largely because of the phenomenon of brand equity in that, you know, Quaker Oats has spanned a century with this product. It's one of the best-known products in the country and it's instantly recognizable.

CHIDEYA: Do you think today that the images of African-Americans, whether it's in advertisements that just last for a couple of months or whether it's on enduring products, is still one that sells to white Americans in particular?

Mr. MANRING: I don't think that you can ever discount race totally. And I disagreed with that statement that race no longer plays any role. I think Americans are still very aware of race, and I think that African-Americans notice race. And that's implicit in what Betty Crocker's owners are saying about putting B. Smith on their box.

But at the same time, I think there's a real difference between - when you look at what George Foreman does and what Aunt Jemima did. I don't think George Foreman and the George Foreman Grill, I don't think race is the big selling point in his grill. I don't think there is anything particularly amusing about his character that has to do with race or racial nostalgia very much.

On the other hand, you see breweries like Anheuser-Busch increasingly hiring rap artists for their ads. And it's unclear to me what kind of audience they are trying to appeal to or what kind of message they're trying to get across, but it does borrow or appropriate black culture in some way that I am not even sure the owners of the brewery would understand.

CHIDEYA: Finally, getting back to B. Smith. You see this African-American woman, very elegant, able to sell products through her charisma, her glamour, is that indicative of a new age in which you don't have African-Americans just seen as these helpers but as these people that you aspire to be, no matter what race you are?

Mr. MANRING: Well, it's hard to get any other message from it. I mean I assume that her face isn't on the box instead of Betty Crocker's face simply to appeal to African-Americans. I mean that would be a rather limited marketing strategy for a mass-market product. I assume that this is to appeal to white people too, and that she is someone that white people might aspire to be.

I don't see any other way to evaluate that but as some kind of progress. I mean it's a little crass to talk about people branding themselves as being progressed, but, then again, she's become part of a mix of celebrity lifestyle gurus. She's Rachael Ray. She's Emeril Lagasse. She's the black Martha Stewart, or maybe Martha Stewart is the white B. Smith. And the harder it gets to tell, I think the better off we all are.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Maurice Manring, thank you so much.

Mr. MANRING: All right. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Maurice Manring is author of “Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.” He joined us by phone from Columbia, Missouri.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, we discuss the news from Iraq. U.S. deaths crossed the 3,000 mark, but what about casualties? And what's the impact of Saddam Hussein's execution?

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.