AFRICANGLOBE – Embattled TV chef, Paula Deen, is in the news again. Her chief assistant, Dora Clark, a Black woman, is suing Deen for not compensating her properly. She also claims that Deen asked her and other female workers to dress and act like Aunt Jemima, the figure on the pancake box based on a prominent Black female image in the days of minstrelsy.
The lady on the pancake box today looks far different than she did just a few years ago. Over time she has had a number of makeovers, as has the image of the Black woman throughout the media. But in both cases were the changes really anything substantial?
Art is a reflection of society, and reflections can be real or distorted. Artistic images, media images of a people, can show them what they were or what they should strive to become. Gazing upon one’s reflection too much can be mesmerizing. Look in the mirror and what do you see? Yourself looking at yourself and being affected by what you see. Thus dangerous affectations, like conceit or negative self-image, can begin to take root.
Watching television too much can be imprisoning. We see a reflection of the society. Do those denigrated by the media tend to see themselves as “less than,” and do those celebrated tend to see themselves as “more than?” What happens when a people do not control their own image? Are they, thus, shaped by the perceptions and prescriptions of others?
There was a film about Aunt Jemima, or rather Aunt Delilah as she was called in Imitation of Life, a 1935 movie filmed in black-and-white, and remade in color in 1959. In the first version, a Black woman soon after becoming the servant of a White woman, reveals her secret recipe for making pancakes. The White woman then develops “Aunt Delillah’s Pancakes,” and becomes rich. The women and their two daughters live together in a palatial residence, but the Black mother and daughter are hardly on the same level as the White.
Aunt Delilah’s extremely light-skinned daughter can, and eventually does, pass for White and coldly denies her mother. Thus we have the two main female stereotypes indentified by Donald Bogle, the Mammy and the Tragic Mulatto. In the later version of Imitation of Life, Universal Picture’s top grossing film in 1959, the Black Mammy figure is somewhat more sleek and well put together and the plot has been altered.
The film was politically correct for 1959. But looked at today, its negative stereotypes seem obvious. Can the same be said of the depiction of African Americans now? In years to come will the sharp critiques of these portrayals by Spike Lee and others be widely accepted as correct?
Dramatic presentations are called “plays” because, like all art, they play with reality. But what is play, if not a re-ordering of reality with a message. Watch the games of children. Look at the roles they play. Note the messages they convey, to each other and to themselves, in their “play acting.” Do we not do the same?
By: Dr. Arthur Lewin
Dr. Lewin was born in Harlem, New York. His parents hail from Jamaica and Cuba. His research has included topics in Jamaican political history, charismatic leadership in African America, Africa and the Caribbean and the class structure in Black America. He is the author of the popular book Africa is Not a Country its a Continent!