Stereotypes help market American merchandise for more than a century, and the history of their use and abuse offers a strange and telling story of race relations in this country. Starting with sugar, its long history is interwoven with that of the slave trade. As sugar consumption increased, the exercise of raw power by European colonials came to dominate non-Western societies to meet the demands of production. Africans were captured and tight packed on board European slave ships and sailed from Africa to the sugar Islands of the Caribbean to labor in cane fields; but only after Indians were nearly made extinct by the brutality. Slavery was no ancillary part of early colonial economy, but a driving force, and sugar was king.
From this dark and exploitive past now comes a raspberry-flavored chewy confection called Redskins. Manufactured in Australia by Nestlé under the Willy Wonka brand, they have sold these racist candies for years. Why name a product Redskins? Because they are red and taste like raspberries (just like real Native Americans). The term redskin however, is associated with our country’s first president. In 1779, George Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack Iroquois people. Washington stated, “Lay waste all the settlements around… that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.” Following the defeat, troops would skin the bodies of Iroquois “from the hips downward to make boot tops or leggings.” Many American Indian activists are pushing to have the derogatory term removed from the football team for which it is named. The banning of Indian mascots is also receiving the same attention. Yet some white’s would argue this is a sign of respect, but would a white man wear blackface to a basketball game?
In 1996, a complaint was made to the New Zealand Advertising Standards Complaints Board about a Redskins advertisement aired on New Zealand television. The advertisement featured comedian Mark Wright dressed in American Indian garb and assuming an “Indian” accent, with a mock drumbeat featured on the soundtrack. Despite protest from Nestlé New Zealand that the advertisement was inoffensive, the Board upheld the complaint (Kennedy, E. ‘Complaints board upholds ruling against sweets ad,’ The Dominion, 1 July 1996). Somehow these candies are still being sold today right along with Washington Redskins NFL Candy and ornament sets that can be purchased at RedskinsTeamstore.com.
In his article Uncle Bens, CEO (?) David Segal explains in 1889, Aunt Jemima was created by Chris L. Rutt, who borrowed the name from a popular vaudeville song at a minstrel show. Looking for a way to sell a self-rising pancake mix, he conceived a jolly ex-slave, who lived on a Louisiana plantation making flapjacks in the days before the Civil War. The woman who first came to play the commercial expression of the legendary mammy was Nancy Green, born a slave, and rumored to be part Indian, in 1834. She impersonated Aunt Jemima until her death in 1923. The black mammy continued to be stereotyped, and in 1960, the Aunt Jemima was boycotted by the NAACP. Although her image has changed, she still remains one of America’s most beloved racist spoke-characters in ads all across the country.
Aunt Jemima’s male counterpart was the Tom, a simple, cheerful, and ambition-free butler and cook. In the South, the mammy and the Tom reflected nostalgia during the days of slavery and later segregation. In the North, these characters were presented as the epitome of hospitality. According to one study of national magazines in the ‘20s—the beginning of the Tom’s heyday—it found that fully half of all ads that featured a black man depicted him as a servant. Like Ben, many were given the title “Uncle,” a word favored by Southerners who wanted to express respect in a society where calling a black man “Mister” was out of the question. While at the grocery store I noticed syrup bottles Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth also make clear this racist distinction.
By the ‘60s racist products began to decline, because of changes brought on by the civil rights movement. This transformation is marked by the debut of Funny Face, Pillsbury’s answer to their competition, Kool-Aid. The brand was launched in 1964 and originally included the goofy-looking characters, Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry. There is no record of a public reaction, but a year later, the two were replaced for Choo-Choo Cherry and Jolly Olly Orange.
Under repeated pressure by NAACP, the Aughinbaugh canning company of Biloxi Mississippi, changed the name of its oysters from “Nigger Head Brand” to “Negro Head Brand.” Negro means ‘black’ in Spanish and Portuguese linking the word to the international slave trade during colonial expeditions to Negroland, an invented European term for various West African inland states favored for slaves.
Segal also writes, Crazy Horse malt liquor was introduced in 1992. The estate of Crazy Horse and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe were appalled; the brand seemed to reinforce the idea that Native Americans are prone to alcoholism. Once again the company stuck with the product only for as long as the upside of cash flow outweighed the downside of adverse publicity. Stroh Brewery sold the brand and in 2001 apologized at a ceremony at the Rosebud Reservation, handing over “culturally appropriate” damages, which included seven racehorses and 32 braids of sweet grass. With less fanfare, the brand’s second owners dropped Crazy Horse’s face from the bottle and renamed the beverage Crazy Stallion in 2004.
Children’s author Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, did advertising for the Narragansett Brewery Company in Rhode Island during the ‘40s. The ad “Gangway for Gansett” featured a cartoon character of a Narragansett Indian Chief known as Chief Gansett, riding a skateboard while holding a glass of golden larger. The brewery opened in 1890, and closed in 1981; by then, Chief Gansett rolled away on his skateboard. The Brewery reopened again in 2005.
The Land O’ Lakes maiden: Kneeling, subservient, butter-offering “Squaw” is patently offensive to the historical aware, and denies the heritage of Native American womanhood. The word “squaw” is an Algonquian word, meaning “woman.”Over time, however, the word has taken on negative connotations and has become a derogatory term used to describe an Indian woman’s vagina, perpetuating the subjugation of Indian women.
Ice cream treats offer us the Eskimo Pie. In Canada and Greenland the term Eskimo, means “raw meat eater,” and is widely held to be pejorative; but racial superiority of Europeans is upheld in Just Whites, a dried egg product by Deb El.
Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima survived courtesy of a series of timely makeovers, including the one in 1989 that turned her into a pearl-wearing, Betty Crocker-like grandmother. Repackaging erased all reminders of our country’s slave holding past, and the consumer never made to feel guilty into buying “what appeared to be” a different brand. Today, no company would be culturally insensitive to build a brand around minority figures, but the ones now in supermarkets have been grandfathered in, rendered innocuous by the passage of time. But what is worth remembering is the ease of racialization through advertising that has caused the historical amnesia of slavery and Jim Crow America by just a few sprinkles of sugar.
Julianne Jennings, E. Pequot-Nottoway, is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University.