Friday, April 20, 2007

Flashback: The “Aunt Jemima Question” Comes Down to a Parley with the Amen Corner of Operation PUSH.

[More than 50 years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

At the appointed day I was to appear before Reverend Jesse Jackson and a selected group of ministers who would usually voiceless except when they murmured “amen!” as they listened to the swaggering Sultan of Pout, I arranged for a car to drive me out there and to wait, with the motor running, because I determined to make a dramatic exit. I decided not to bother the Company and got instead a black weekly newspaper editor to sit out there with the engine purring.

When I got inside the building, I was told that there would be a catered lunch for us—Jackson, me, and about forty men of the cloth. The only woman I could see other than the culinary ones who worked in the kitchen and were setting the tables was Reverend Willie Barrow, then as now a tiny woman with a great demeanor and fierce loyalty to Jackson. I noted that my friend Reverend George Edwin Riddick was particularly quiet, his eyes on his plate as befitting one in the presence of his employers.

As we ate, the conversation devolved around several things. When at last the women cleared the tables…Reverend Barrow assisting in those duties…Reverend Jackson delivered a Fidel Castro-like monologue pitched to the amen corner about the white business Pharaohs…our name not specifically mentioned…being brought finally to accountability as the amens began softly and rose in volume…all the while I insouciantly picked my teeth unimpressedly with a toothpick to show some disdain.

The monologue did not deal with what Reverend Riddick and I had thought we had accomplished but on the signal disparity of the white “haves” with their feet on the helpless necks of the black “have-nots”—culminating on the outrageous, horror insult to all black womanhood…the womanhood which nurtured and brought into the world against great odds and oppression this generation of blacks…the insult of being relegated to look like a southern Mammy or a servile “Sapphire” who was the menial secretary to the Amos `n Andy character George “Kingfish” Stevens…amen corner: yes, Lord!...that Mammy being fat! Yes, Lord! That Mammy being a rag head with a bandana on her head! Yes, Lord! While white women are shown as young and sleek and suburban our women,—our much exploited, earlier raped and defiled—used on too many occasions, I tell you as receptacles for white mens’ lust…our black women are represented as playthings of men! YES, LORD!

When finally it ended with the culminating: AMEN! I was asked to respond. I did so by distributing marketing statistics that showed an interesting thing…that the black face on the package…which was ahistorical, which was not related to any black woman live or dead…was at the very top of the heap of brand images identified with culinary excellence. Then I reviewed the slow fall-out of black faces that used to be on packages which were now sloughed off due to misbegotten “civil rights” pressure: the black face on Cream of Wheat which had been identified with culinary excellence, now rejected in favor of a plain box…the black face on Uncle Ben’s Rice, first ben-day’d out and now a plain box. I surveyed all the other nationalities…the Hispanic woman on the Sunsweet raisin box—proudly standing for her heritage…visuals of smiling Asians on packages of ethnic foods.

Then I showed a scenario of how Aunt Jemima could and would be transformed…from the inherited obese smiler of the early part of the century…to the thinner version…how the bandana of yore has been gradually transformed to a suburban-style headband. They were unimpressed as was the scowling Sultan of Pout.

Then for the peroration, I said there were some who wished the face would be erased altogether along with the name…transmigrating smoothly with each month showing a bigger “A”and a bigger “J” as the picture grew smaller, winding up with “AJ”—AJ pancake mix. And I asked if that would be cognizant with the drive for black identity…the very drive they had pioneered to get more black faces in ads so as not to portray America as a nation of single Caucasian nature. Then the Amen corner sounded diffuse. Some said quietly, with one eye on Jackson: “no.”

I said so far as the cream of black womanhood was concerned, I noticed that there was only one woman of 40 at the table…and even she helped with serving the food, pouring the coffee. I asked whether or not in their hearts they felt that the cream of black womanhood was usurped by the arrogant and Pharaoh-like Buddha expectations from the cream of black manhood. There was silence and some shifting of chairs.

Finally from my valise I produced a huge cardboard painting of General Mills’ Betty Crocker, a blindingly white, ultra-sunny housewife…smiling triumphantly…and asked why the move for increased black identity did not compel them to petition General Mills to make her black! I concluded by wondering if the battle to kill Aunt Jemima was not a residue of original black hatred transferred unwittingly to them.

With that I said, “this discussion is ended so far as I am concerned. So long as your hearts are so hardened, it cannot be resolved—nor can other things Reverend Riddick and I had agreed on. Good day” and walked out, walked downstairs and hopped into the getaway car.

For a few days I heard nothing—nothing from Riddick, nothing from anybody. Then the next week I got a call from a high official of General Mills whom I knew when I lived in Minnesota. He was not friendly. There was a group in his anteroom which was complaining about the singular lack of black faces in their merchandising and citing Betty Crocker…pointing out that in contrast, although there should be some adjustments, Aunt Jemima reflected black heritage.

He was far from happy—but I was.

The next week I had a call from Reverend Riddick and our conversations resumed—resumed for some weeks with little said on either side about Aunt Jemima. Finally he pronounced that PUSH was satisfied and that in place of a covenant there would be a general luncheon in our honor at PUSH. I told Bob Stuart that they had invited us to a luncheon at our convenience at PUSH headquarters. He agreed to be on hand for a testimonial to Quaker. We went together in the company car with driver—a gesture I wished to make rather than to grovel around in artificial humility by arriving in a cheaper car. What happened before the meeting…when Jesse Jackson, the child of the South met Robert D. Stuart, a patrician blue-blood, next time.

No comments:

Post a Comment