My partner and I went for lunch at a New Hampshire diner. The town where the diner is located is 85% White. The diner’s décor is supposedly based on “the original 1952 Worcester Diner Car #837.” The walls are graced with Americana kitsch; Elvis Presley statue, mason jars, the Mr. Peanut Head statue, a Hawaiian women with grass skirt, and the racist image of Mammy in the form of cookie jar, a robust African American woman dressed in apron and head scarf. You can easily find images of this kind by typing, “mammy cookie jar” in your browser.
My partner, who is White, respectfully complained about the inclusion of the Mammy Cookie Jar. He shared that he viewed this type of image as discomforting, especially while dining, and that is was a painful reminder of American History. He talked about the racist nature of such imagery.
The response of the manager, who was a white woman, was unfortunately typical: “She liked the jar.” “She didn’t think it was racist.” “The jar had been in her possession (or had been in her familys’, I don’t remember the exact answer) for a long time.” In short, she was not persuaded, Mammy would stay.
My partner was echoing the same discomfort voiced in 1963 by civil rights organization of the use of Aunt Jemima. In The News and Courier, February 13, 1963, on page 4, a small newspaper article that talked about how Black leaders in Rochester NY did not want an Aunt Jemima pancake store. “Flora Harris, a local officer of the Congress of Racial Equality said the “mammy-type costume” associated with the [Aunt Jemima] name was “degrading” and described the image as ‘a negative stereotype of the Negro subservient to a white family.”
The use of African American faces and characterizations like those found in Mammy, Uncle Ben, and Aunt Jemima, become key ingredients in the brand product marketing. Marketers and advertisers use the comforting feelings that Whites (and uninformed people of color) gain from viewing historical legacies of exploited African American slave labor. The use of historically derived African American on food products serves as a comforting sign of White stability and safety, emotional safety.
These racist images serve as iconic metaphors promoting Black subservience to others, a direct reference to American slavery. I am not talking about the collection of these images in one’s home, as many African American collect these products as memorabilia or as reminders of our past, but my objection is to the display of these images in quasi-public spaces.