“Are they really stereotypes?” That this question is disturbing to me, yet legitimate in query, and that I felt compelled to address it, align answer cautiously, is alone a testament to the degree of brainwashing, and indoctrination across strata, and culture regarding the idea, and placement of the Black woman, man, and child in the American psyche.

This essay was written in response to a social media comment by my friend, Anthropology professor, Sunonda Samaddar Carrado, PhD: “Removal of Uncle Ben and other human advertising emblems are erasing African American contributions to agriculture.” Though this assertion was startling, professor followed with a set of questions that proved to be even more arresting: “Aren’t these historical markers? Are they really stereotypes?” I wondered given the generational pervasiveness of these images, Aunt Jemima since 1889, how much of the population might too be gas lit by this revisionist perspective, or what’s worse, share no perspective on the matter, and simply accept these images as naturally occurring elements in the American landscape.

Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are more than stereotypes. They are the forced institutionalized manifestation of deferred dreams, as are ALL the happy Negro domesticated mascots of multinational corporations that promote the fictionalized idea of a gentle South, decorated with cheerful Negro servants. The South was as gentle as the killing of George Floyd. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, the Cream of Wheat man, all wear the stylized expressions of capture. Their images are forever trapped in a mercantile maelstrom, marking the stain of a violent American history, imprinting the continuum of the unshakeable, barely bearable faces of exploitation.

The dolled-up twenty-first century, Mammy and Little Black Sambo are merely an updated, sanitized attempt at erasing the brutal economic structure from which these images hail— hail from a monetary system that subsequently profited the descendants of slave holders and the multinational corporations for centuries while erecting impenetrable structures to the advancement of Black economic development.

Why do food companies boast pictures of branded 18 th century Black domestic workers? Why don’t food companies promote products with images of food? Perhaps a family dining upon a scrumptious rice pilaf would be inviting. What are these companies purporting to sell? To a segment of the White boomer generation, who may be hungry for nostalgia of the 1950s, 40s or before, the digested meal is a kind of an emotional cannibalism, consisting of pancakes, as well as the made-to-order, petrified in time, smiling Black servants. These consumers, all consumers are further lured to ingest, not only food,
and the smiling Black people, but also the romanticized notion, a Gone with the Wind falsified history that conveys an idealized, “Great” time period, when things were sweet as the bought syrup supped, a time when Negros were docile.

For well over a century, racism dujour on a serving platter is the menu advertisers sell, 365 days of the year. Promoting Black people as product, or as a fantasy of servitude to enhance the product, makes logic. It is consistent with the moral tenets of the initiation of corporate capitalism established via the chattel enslavement industry. Since the beginning of this America the Beautiful experiment, Black people have suffered being relegated to product status, from free labor caged to cotton, to commercial constructs sealed to syrup, pancakes, cereal, and rice.

Corporations have been mercenary in upholding Blacks as a permanent American subclass by manufacturing images which reinforce the culturally embedded lie of Black inferiority. Marketers assault the imagination of society by fabricating a visual narrative that asserts through branding, and mass staining of a billion dollar industry the status of the Negro/Black as servant. The so-named Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben images are seared into the captured consciousness of the American public. This stereotyping, product making machine is immensely effective in corralling ideas, and thus opportunities related to African American advancement. I understand in America’s all White enclaves— besides Black lawn jockeys, these images make pre-language impressions as they are often the first images a toddler will see of an African American— posed and boxed on breakfast tables.

Once the corporations enact the noble favor of removing their packaged trademarks, the monikers of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, the names, will be preserved, and yet actively marketed. The problem is that these names are indelibly stamped to the faces which represent constrictions of the colonial, antebellum, post reconstruction vision— Blacks as domesticated purchased products. Close your eyes, and whisper, Aunt Jemima, can’t you see her? Her face conjures just as a stop sign conjures halting with only a red octagon shape. The visual imprint, and thus the assigned meaning, will endure in the
societal mind, while surreptitiously, like ghosts, lingering absent throughout ad campaigns. Such is a delicious, insidious example of the hidden mechanisms embedded in institutionalized racism. The damage, the socio-psychological scar tissue formed a distorted mind malignancy that will persist as long as the names persist for generations into the future. I ask, where are the corrective measures, the reconstructive social surgery to mitigate the damage from these cultural corporate disfigurement campaigns?

Parallel—is the Land O lakes indigenous, Indian woman image that never belonged on butter to promote the idea of nature and purity— an Indian stereotype. According to ferocious architects of Manifest Destiny: Indians were savages. The colonizers’ narrative screamed with vivid illustrations — Indians were fit only to kill, and the land was to steal. Conveniently, the Native American woman transitioned into a “pure” savage, fit to sell— butter, half naked. Again, what is to be consumed? Do you see what I see? What we see?

As social creatures, food is essential, primal; food is culture; it is the sustenance everyone craves. Food as memory is intricately linked to ceremony and commemorative emotional exhilaration experienced through such festival as weddings, and graduations. Food is also tied to incredible sorrow, repasts, bereavement, and grief. Powerful is the super-imposition of food onto identity — black identity, black identity as a servant to ensure a servile tint.

Such techniques in advertising are brilliantly immoral in the marketing of dehumanization, in the making of Black people into objects. The facial details on the cartons donning the objectified, eventually fade into a kind of flour/ water paste blur as shoppers pass by, not really recognizing details of humanity. The containers of goods and the facial emblems merge; they are one, things of utility, to be discarded, disposed of once used. The empty pancake boxes with iconic pictures affixed are tossed. These are the genuflecting throw-a- ways who pose with a signature simple grin. These labels keep company in grocery store aisles with other fictional, non-real mascots like leprechauns and silly rabbits. The boxes are still, voice-less on our supermarket shelves. They are quieter than the internal silence of closed cupboards, closed societies, and closed hearts. These boxes that don melanin dominate repeat cameo appearances wait to service, to be poured, to be consumed. They never talk.

After enduring centuries of structural barriers to community-actualization, Black people learned to survive by adapting, by accepting, by tolerating, participating, rejecting, boycotting, striking, fighting, and going hard against these strange configurations of their objectification cemented in novels, films, rap videos, and all manner of art, sales, and merchandising. Today, only a small component of African American brothers and sisters argue to remain on the box, no doubt because, that is the only place they have ever been seen, no matter how distorted the view.

If the illustrators of these exploited, renderings allowed the characters to speak, what would those contrived caricatures say? They would say, “Take me off this rectangular nightmare. Pay me my royalties. I am not your servant into perpetuity. I am not your Aunt! I am not your Uncle!” They would say, “I wanted to be a concert pianist. I studied and graduated from the Detroit Conservatory of Music, but because of your racist appetite, I am held in exile from
my capacity on a cereal box.”

They would say “Our names are Iduma and Okosowa; we are offspring, brother and sister. We are the blessings of the union between Mama Ife Kadjogbe and Baba Kwodo Kadjogbe, our great great great great grandparents who were stolen from what is now called Gambia. We are from the Fulani Nation, West Africa. I am Iduma, son, of the son, of the son of a blacksmith who forged iron work throughout the French Quarter. Instead of melting and smelting iron, I am reduced to stirring rice as a box butler. And, “I am Okosowa, a great healer, daughter of the daughter, of the daughter, of the daughter of a physician,
who studied medicine at the University of Timbuktu. I am now stuck on a bottle, in the paste of post-modern fossilized syrup.”

As the inanimate fling themselves into animation, into freedom, leap from cereal and pancake boxes, shout from neon colored cardboard that rattles off the shelves in redlined ghettos; as the labels unstick, burning off the ghastly glue of subjugation; as the structure of Mammy shaped glass and plastic syrup bottles transform, melt into phoenix Queen Nzinga spirit power, and red, green and black pellet flames beat like hearts and drums to the pulse of political, economic, and social uprisings—As justice obliterates all the containers of injustice, giving life to the *Montage of Dreams Deferred so defined by Langston Hughes— the human possibilities incarcerated in the boxed systems of White Supremacy… If the commercial, unethically branded were asked, to speak, what would they say? What would they say? What do you say? What will you say? I say, Black Lives Matter!

Semaj Brown
Flint, Michigan’s First Poet Laureate
Author of Bleeding Fire!
Tap the Eternal Spring of Regenerative Light