Slave in a Box; The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima / Edition 1

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The figure of the mammy occupies a central place in the lore of the Old South and has long been used to ullustrate distinct social phenomena, including racial oppression and class identity. In the early twentieth century, the mammy became immortalized as Aunt Jemima, the spokesperson for a line of ready-mixed breakfast products. Although Aunt Jemima has undergone many makeovers over the years, she apparently has not lost her commercial appeal; her face graces more than forty food products nationwide and she still resonates in some form for millions of Americans.

In Slave in a Box, M.M. Manring addresses the vexing question of why the troubling figure of Aunt Jemima has endured in American culture. Manring traces the evolution of the mammy from her roots in the Old South slave reality and mythology, through reinterpretations during Reconstruction and in minstrel shows and turn-of-the-century advertisements, to Aunt Jemima's symbolic role in the Civil Rights movement and her present incarnation as a "working grandmother." We learn how advertising entrepreneur James Webb Young, aided by celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth, skillfully tapped into nostalgic 1920s perceptions of the South as a culture of white leisure and black labor. Aunt Jemima's ready-mixed products offered middle-class housewives the next best thing to a black servant: a "slave in a box" that conjured up romantic images of not only the food but also the social hierarchy of the plantation South.

The initial success of the Aunt Jemima brand, Manring reveals, was based on a variety of factors, from lingering attempts to reunite the country after the Civil War to marketing strategies around World War I. Her continued appeal in the late twentieth century is a more complex and disturbing phenomenon we may never fully understand. Manring suggests that by documenting Aunt Jemima's fascinating evolution, however, we can learn important lessons about our collective cultural identity.

University of Virginia Press

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Editorial Reviews

Manning Marable

In the white imagination few images are as recognizable as Aunt Jemima. As a negative stereotype reinforcing both racism and sexism, Aunt Jemima symbolically valued the humanity of black women. As M.M. Manring's thoughtful and well written account makes clear, the racist image of the black mammy has had a powerful impact upon American culture and society. Slave in a Box documents the continuing commodification of racial and gender inequality within white America.

Andrea Higbie
Slave in a Box is absorbing in its thickly and thoughtfully layered analysis of the mammy whose pancake mix, the ads promised, 'made women womenly, men manly and turned boys into Eagle Scouts.' -- New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The troubling figure of Aunt Jemima, the 'simple, earnest smiling mammy' who currently adorns more than 40 food products manufactured by Quaker Oats, is now over 100 years old. With origins in the 'mammies' of the antebellum South and in the minstrel shows (where she was played by white men in drag and blackface) and magazine ads of the early 1900s, Aunt Jemima has undergone various makeovers, independent scholar Manring notes. However, she landed her present incarnation as benevolent pancake maker through the attempts of ad men James Webb Young and N. C. Wyeth in the 1920s to capitalize on white nostalgia for the 'leisure' of the plantation system. Geared for middle-class homemakers, Aunt Jemima's 'ready-mixed' breakfast thus served as a 'slave in a box,' according to Manring. Though rid of her bandanna and toothy grin by the 1960s, Aunt Jemima remains a metaphor for whites' idealized relations between the races, with a non-threatening, asexual elderly black woman happily serving the powers that be. A careful cultural study of this familiar image of Americana, Manring's analysis covers broad-ranging materials from popular fiction, folk songs, movies and ads, as well as historical events such as the 1893 World's Fair and Disney's theme park opening in 1955 of 'Aunt Jemima's Pancake House.' The book is less concerned with tracing a 'strange career,' however, than with the way marketing strategies can both mirror and create white fantasies. Aunt Jemima's static character only underscores the intractability of cultural change when moving product has the upper hand over social conscience.
Manning Marable
In the white imagination few images are as recognizable as that of Aunt Jemima.... As M. M. Manring's thoughtful and well-written account makes clear, the racist image of the black mammy has had a powerful impact upon American culture and society. Slave in a Box documents the continuing commodification of racial and gender inequality within white America. -- Columbia University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813918112
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/1998
  • Series: American South Ser.
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 210
  • Sales rank: 871,331
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.07 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

M.M. Manring is an independent scholar living in Columbia, Missouri.

University of Virginia Press

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Cracking Jokes in the Confederate Supermarket 1
2 Someone's in the Kitchen: Mammies, Mothers, and Others 18
3 From Minstrel Shows to the World's Fair: The Birth of Aunt Jemima 60
4 They Were What They Ate: James Webb Young and the Reconstruction of American Advertising 79
5 The Old South, the Absent Mistress, and the Slave in a Box 110
6 The Secret of the Bandanna: The Mammy in Contemporary Society 149
Notes 185
Works Cited 197
Index 207
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