While doing research in Lebanon, Tennessee, I ran across an exhibit in the city hall mentioning Maud Woodfork, a locally-born actress who had portrayed Aunt Jemima on the radio and in personal appearances. This lead to my reading a book with an intriguing title: Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, which discussed the perennial appeal of Southern, African-American characters as symbols of hospitality and good food.
The images of these familiar figures, such as Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat’s Rastus, and Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben’s Rice, while they have long abandoned their slave-like and demeaning protraits (Aunt Jemima lost her kerchief–and a great deal of weight–decades ago) still cause people to wince. It is amazing in these politically correct days that Jemima, Rastus, and Ben persist at all, but they evidently continue to move their products.
In a recently rolled out web campaign, Uncle Ben, the longtime pitchman for rice, has made the biggest leap of all.
In a website revealed last week by parent company Mars, Uncle Ben now appears to be a CEO of a large corporation. Visitors to the site can peruse Ben’s–he still has no last name–schedule and receive “grains of wisdom from him. Last week, The New York Times ran a long article on the campaign.