Steven Fine
Churgin Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University

Time for Aunt Jemima to Retire

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The “Aunt Jemima” bottles are coming off the shelves, as is “Uncle Ben” and the black chef of the “Cream of Wheat” box.  That is a good thing.  

Truth is, I haven’t bought any of these brands for some time.  The “Cream of Wheat” man looking out from my food pantry was almost too much to bear. “Aunt Jemima” on my breakfast table dispensing brown syrup was over the top.

It felt as if I had real African American servants picking up after me, cooking my food, and sweeping my floor.  These images felt like stand ins, “in service” to households who could not afford to employ their own “help.”  

Most people had no idea…

I remember more than 50 years ago, an African-American cleaning lady coming to our home each week.  My mother called her the shevartze, literally “the black,”  and they were very friendly.  

This pejorative was the term generally used by many Eastern European Jewish immigrants and their children to describe the next group down from them on the American hierarchy of ethnicities.  African-Americans and Jews were  gerrymandered into close and often uncomfortable proximity by zoning laws and “land covenants” in cities across America.

Was my mother a racist?  Probably a little, certainly systemically — as were  most people of her generation and class.  She would have absolutely recoiled with disgust if anyone would have called her one, though.

An anecdote:  One day, our “cleaning lady” and I were talking.  I was 3, maybe 4. JFK was president.  I looked my friend in her eyes lovingly and earnestly said “I have a chocolate cleaning lady and a chocolate milk man and a chocolate mailman.”  She took me in her arms, and hugged me tightly.  My mom stood by and smiled.

My mother loved to repeat this story.  It was, I suppose, both an anecdote about her cute little boy, and an expression of her own sense of liberality — that she was raising her son without hate — before the troubles of 1967 scared her and her peers into complacency.

Today, we can see the implicit racism behind this exchange, and it is horrifying.  

“Aunt Jemima,” my chocolate maple syrup dispenser greeted me at breakfast, sometimes poured over “Cream of Wheat” served by the unnamed black chef on the box. For dinner, we often ate Uncle Ben’s “white rice.”  Even my chocolate milk was implicated.

These products were as normal as my chocolate mailman.

They were as “normal” as the “Frito Bandito,” Ricky Ricardo, Kung Fu, and the Willie Mays bobblehead that I kept proudly bobbing on my dresser.  They were as normal as a “Jew’s harp” and the “wandering Jew” plant that sprawled off our window sill.  

No one I knew thought twice about it.

As Jews, these slights of branding have mostly avoided us in America— something quite unusual in Jewish history, and in most other countries.  Civil people are not uncivilly anti-Semitic (at least in public).  

Still, how many people still “Jew them down” for the best deal possible? Holocaust “jokes”are on the rise.  Pennies are still thrown down in front of us, antisemitic memes pervade the internet, synagogues are vandalized— and worse. 

In my lifetime American Jews have not suffered the systemic insults that our African-American neighbors worry about every time they go shopping or drive their cars.  

You cannot “buy” Jewish servants in your local store. 

It is past time for Aunt Jemima to finally retire— I hope with a very hefty pension!

About the Author
Steven Fine is a cultural historian, specializing in Jewish history in the Greco-Roman period. He focuses upon the literature, art and archaeology of ancient Judaism, and the ways that modern scholars have interpreted Jewish antiquity. His most recent book is: The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (Harvard UP, 2016). Fine is the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, director of the YU Center for Israel Studies, the Arch of Titus Project, and the YU Samaritan Israelites Project.
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