Last year, during a discussion of Jim Crow’s Museum, one of my students disagreed with Dr. David Pilgrim’s analysis of Aunt Jemima. My student argued that rather than being a racist stereotype, Aunt Jemima was a successful businesswoman.
I must admit that I had similar feelings toward Rastus, the dashing chef who advertises Cream of Wheat. As Alice Ross explains: “He was depicted as the idealized, dignified black chef, knowledgeable and accomplished in his craft.”1 Where is the racism?
Had Rastus been a white chef, he would have been celebrated as an entrepreneur taking pride in his product. It seemed to me that Dr. Pilgrim was pushing the limits of his analysis.
As a gay man, I know how easy it is to find discrimination everywhere. I still remember one time when a very drunk woman complained that the heterosexuals in the neighborhood bar didn’t like her because she was a lesbian. “No,” I thought, “they don’t like you because you’re obnoxious.”
I suspected that because Dr. Pilgrim expects to find racism he analyzed Rastus as a racist stereotype; a hateful thing. Like the drunken lesbian, he appeared to find what he expected to see.
However, while visiting the Hateful Things exhibit, I realized that it is I—not Dr. Pilgrim—who labored under scholarly limitations. Although I was familiar with the contemporary Rastus, today I met the Rastus portrayed in a 1921 advertisement; a semi-illiterate chef who doesn’t know what a “vitamine” is; who thinks they could possibly be bugs. He might appear polished, but underneath his crisp uniform is a racist stereotype who bears a striking resemblance to the ignorant Uncle Tom who enjoys pickin’ and grinin’ and eatin’ watermelons. Rastus is a racist image.
Last semester, I had a student who was so smart that she didn’t consider the teaching materials I presented to be that important and didn’t consult them while writing her paper. By relying only on the knowledge she acquired before starting the course, she ended up failing the class. Unlike this student, I continue to consult resources concerning concepts about which I have a great deal of familiarity. Even when I have expertise in an area, I know that I can continue to learn.
Having watched Jim Crow’s Museum at least 20 times as well as having done other research on the topic, I am very familiar with issues of racist memorabilia. Even though I knew the basic content of Hateful Things, I visited the exhibit anyway. While there, I met the 1921 Rastus and, as a result, better understand Dr. Pilgrim’s position and the role of racism and racist memorabilia in American society.
One wonderful thing about education is that it does not stop. It is always possible to learn more about the world in which I live.
1Ross, Alice. “Rastus and His Friends.” The Journal of Antiques and Collectables April 2003.