FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Recently, commentator Richard Purcell learned that rice-box icon Uncle Ben had a secret life. He's trying to come to terms with that revelation.
RICHARD PURCELL: I believe that trying to contact famous people is a lost cause. I doubt the jet-setting crowd has time to talk to an average person like me. But when it was recently revealed that Uncle Ben was smiling icon and chairman of a multibillion-dollar corporation for the last 67 years, I had to write him.
If you don't mind, I like to share my letter.
Dear Chairman Uncle Ben.
Please excuse my directness, but, man, you've been pulling a fast one on us for a long time. I'm glad you've finally come out, but I'm also ambivalent about your timing. I understand why you didn't or perhaps couldn't in the past, but I also wonder why it took you so long.
I took the virtual tour of your offices online, and read your books and planners. But what I've learned raised as many questions as it answered. For instance, I knew you weren't the first successful African-American businessperson. But your autobiography, "From Rice to Riches," suggests that you were the first to have an executive position at a white-owned, multi-billion-dollar corporation.
Up until now I thought that honor went to Harvey C. Russell, who was made vice president of Pepsi-Cola in 1962. And as I'm sure you know, when his promotion was announced, the Ku Klux Klan promptly called for a boycott of Pepsi products. In fact, you're an executive since the late 1930s. Was that during Jim Crowe?
Back then I know most Americans were okay with blacks working in rice fields, but running the rice company? How did it feel to feed the same people who might have wanted to lynch you?
When the U.S. entered World War II a few years later, you did the patriotic thing and supplied your original converted rice to the U.S. Army. But wasn't this the same Army that refused to integrate its ranks? How did that feel?
I'm also dying to ask you something else. After the war, you decided to put your own face on your product. On the one hand, it's a stroke of marketing genius. Whites have always and still love to buy products with subservient images of us attached to them. But that too must have been a very hard decision.
Profits are important, but didn't you know you were adding to a long history of demeaning stereotypical images? Anyway, I peeked into your planner to get a sense of your current interests. I noticed you were scheduled to play in a golf tournament. Have you always been a golfer? Did you conduct business deals on the links back in the day like you probably do now? If so, how'd you get into those country clubs with your white colleagues? Did you have to act like the caddie for one of them?
Much has changed since then, but not enough. There are currently only six African-Americans CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. We've got "Song on the South" being re-released on DVD and Don Imus's radio show calling the Rutgers women's basketball team jigaboos. Seems to me we've got plenty of work to do so I need to know where you're going to fit in. Is your coming out only symbolic? If not, then two things need to happen.
First, you're going to have to tell us the truth about your past. Second, it's the 20th century, so for God's sake could you please drop the uncle?
Respectfully, Richard Purcell.
CHIDEYA: Richard Purcell teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. He's finishing his doctoral dissertation on writer Ralph Ellison.
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.