Turning Uncle Ben into Chairman of the Board

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

At a time when we’re seeing various institutions acknowledge and apologize for their involvement with the slave trade (the state of Maryland and Brown University are two recent examples), it’s sad to see one company so enthusiastically reviving a brand that was built on slave imagery.

The New York Times discusses a new campaign from Uncle Ben’s Rice that is attempting to give Ben a makeover:

Uncle Ben, who first appeared in ads in 1946, is being reborn as Ben, an accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company calls his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life.

Check out the Uncle Ben’s web site for a glimpse at the campaign.

Uncle Ben is a perfect example of the Tom caricature. From the excellent Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia web site:

The Tom caricature portrays Black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, as with the Mammy Caricature, was born in ante-bellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if Black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies) were contented, loyal servants? The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter. Unlike the Coon, the Tom is portrayed as a dependable worker, eager to serve. Unlike the Brute, the Tom is docile and non-threatening to Whites. The Tom is often old, physically weak, psychologically dependent on Whites for approval.

During the antebellum era, whites would often refer to elderly black slaves as “uncle” or “aunt.” It was a way of bestowing some respect without going so far as to treat them as actual equals by calling them “Mr.” or “Mrs.” This means that the very names of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are directly descended from the culture of slavery. Continue reading

links for 2007-04-02