From Publishers 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 nonthreatening, 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.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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.
(Manning Marable, Professor of History, and Director, Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University)