While We’re On the Subject of Racist Images…

Painting by Edward Brewer, 1921

It’s probably time to consider the mysterious longevity of this Minnesota-born corporate symbol.

Quaker Oats’ recent decision to abandon its Aunt Jemima brand and acknowledge its origin as a racial stereotype got me thinking about another well-known corporate mascot—and the concept of complicity.

For more than a century, the breakfast cereal Cream of Wheat (manufactured for many years in Minneapolis) has featured a fictional African American chef named Rastus on its packaging and in its advertisements. Like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, Rastus has, since his birth in Minnesota, reflected and reinforced white stereotypes, rooted in slavery, of happy and docile black servitude. Confronted periodically by critics, Cream of Wheat’s corporate overseers have defended Rastus’s marketing endurance by touting his high recognition among generations of consumers. The product’s current owner, B&G Foods, has yet to encounter any intense pressure to retire Rastus, but that could easily change now that Aunt Jemima is leaving. But even if B&G ultimately accepts responsibility for perpetuating such a long-running racial stereotype, we shouldn’t forget that Cream of Wheat’s various owners are not the only ones who have made it possible for such a problematic brand to persist.

What about the ad agencies that, over the years, accepted and developed Cream of Wheat founder Emery Mapes’s vision of an African American chef mascot? Two firms—the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Company of New York and the Mac Martin Advertising Agency of Minneapolis—were most responsible for turning Rastus into a marketing phenomenon during the early 1900s. They eschewed what were called “reason-why” campaigns (those touting health benefits, for example) in favor the kind of pure emotion that they felt Rastus conveyed. And their unconventional marketing approach was widely admired within the advertising industry. A 1917 article in the trade publication Printers’ Ink—written in jarringly racist language— described the Rastus ads as, “delightfully tender and human reflections of real life.” Today we recognize them instead as gauzy representations of a servile black man doing the bidding of white children and adults.

What about the artists who used a photograph of a real person—an African American lunch counter attendant from Chicago—as the inspiration for dozens of Cream of Wheat paintings? Several famous American illustrators, including James Montgomery Flagg, created versions of Rastus, but none was as prolific as Minneapolis artist Edward Brewer, who painted his first one in 1911. Whatever misgivings Brewer and his fellow illustrators had about using a real-life black subject to sell breakfast cereal were apparently easily outweighed by the $500 commission each painting generated. The character they created still smiles out from boxes of Cream of Wheat today.

What about the journalists and historians who, in the past, wrote glowingly about the endurance of the Cream of Wheat brand without acknowledging the damaging stereotype it propagated? An admiring 1980 profile of Edward Brewer in the Minnesota Historical Society’s journal, Minnesota History, featured multiple reproductions of Brewer’s Rastus paintings without once mentioning their racial component. Such an omission would probably never make it past an editor today, but anyone who writes about history—myself included—knows how easily unexamined prejudices can make their way into copy. We need to acknowledge that our choices as writers and historians sometimes add to the problem.

And finally, what about those of us who actually like Cream of Wheat, who have happily purchased and eaten it without ever really thinking about the face on the box and what it represents. Perhaps we can forgive ourselves for not knowing the truth about Rastus’s origins, for not knowing that his creator, Emery Mapes, joked he could sell sawdust if his “n____s”—meaning dark-skinned mascots like Rastus—led the marketing campaign. But we could easily have figured it out if we had chosen to. The question is: If we had known, would it have mattered? Would it have convinced us to stop buying Cream of Wheat or demand Rastus’s removal? Consider me skeptical.

It’s easy to dismiss such questions as a distractions. (Does anybody even eat Cream of Wheat anymore?) But Rastus and Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are, for all their marketing stamina, cultural relics. Whatever fondness we might have for them, whatever value they might have as brands, they’re not worth the trouble anymore. It’s time for Minnesota-born Rastus to take off his chef’s hat and retire.

The Power of Pressure Campaigns

Pillsbury thought these Funny Face flavors were a good idea—until activists spoke up.

As pro teams in DC and Cleveland consider dumping names offensive to indigenous people, here’s a reminder to keep up the pressure.

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune, during a previous, unsuccessful attempt to force the “Redskins” into retirement

Sometimes it seems the long struggle to force the NFL’s Washington Redskins franchise to change its name is destined to fail. Many Minnesotans remember the scene in 1992, when the American Indian Movement and its supporters organized symposiums and protests to coincide with the Washington team’s Super Bowl appearance at the Metrodome. Nothing much changed then. The Redskins remained the Redskins. Today, the team and its fans continue to embrace a name and logo that many others consider blatantly offensive. It would be easy to conclude that protest against corporate misappropriation of American Indian culture is futile.

But it’s not. It’s worked before. And a few of the most memorable success stories played out here in Minnesota.

In 1964, Minneapolis-based Pillsbury introduced a new line of powdered soft drink mixes to compete with Kool-Aid. Pillsbury called its new, sugar-free product Funny Face. (Its artificial sweetener, sodium cyclamate, was later linked to cancer and banned by the FDA, but that’s a different story.) Each Funny Face flavor was named for a silly character: Goofy Grape, Loud-Mouth Lime, Freckle-Face Strawberry, Rootin’-Tootin’ Raspberry, and two others that soon created major public relations headaches at Pillsbury—Chinese Cherry and Injun Orange.

The Chinese Cherry character was a slant-eyed red cherry with buckteeth and a pigtail. Injun Orange, with his crossed eyes, skewed war paint, and limp feathers, smiled insipidly in a nearly perfect distillation of negative Native American stereotypes. Both characters, along with their less offensive product line-mates, were big hits with kids and parents alike.

But this was the height of the modern Civil Rights era. Minority groups were finding their voice, and they were not inclined to let corporate America get away with insensitive and insulting marketing campaigns. In early 1966, the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) called on Pillsbury to dump both Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry. The group claimed that the two characters’ “derogatory nature” was “highly objectionable.”

It was only after the AAIA went public with its anti-Funny Face campaign that Pillsbury announced it was already phasing out the two characters. It turned out that several other groups, including Chinese-American grocers in Sacramento, had filed similar complaints. “We admit guilt all over the lot,” a Pillsbury spokesman said. “It was in poor taste. We quickly saw our fault and as early as last July we decided to change the names.” Chinese Cherry became Choo Choo Cherry. Injun Orange turned into Jolly Olly Orange.

If the campaign to dispatch Injun Orange had constituted the only successful protest against corporate-perpetuated Native American stereotypes, then perhaps it would make sense to write off as unwinnable the current campaign against the Washington Redskins name. But Pillsbury was just one in a string of companies that were convinced to change their stereotyping ways in the 1960s and beyond. In 1965, Calvert Distillers, under pressure from the AAIA and other American Indian groups, dropped a “soft whisky” ad that read in part: “The Indians didn’t call whisky firewater for nothing. Why do you think they were yelping all the time?” A year later, the AAIA scored a similar victory against the Marx Toys Company, manufacturer of a vulgar children’s doll called “Nutty Mad Indian.” And in 1967, Roger Jourdain, chairman of Minnesota’s Red Lake Band of Chippewa, helped convince General Electric to pull an ad featuring rambunctious white youngsters dressed in Indian costume. The copy for the ad read, “When you decide to shoot wild Indians, you can’t afford to miss.”

Of course Pillsbury, Calvert, Marx, and General Electric were not football franchises. They did not have rabid fans, steeped in the “traditions” that a team name and logo can come to represent. But those companies—and many others over the years—have succumbed to pressure after realizing they failed to consider the damage their marketing might do. It’s not hard to imagine that the NFL team from Washington will eventually do the same.