In a legendary Saturday Night Live skit from 2000, Tracy Morgan parodied Aunt Jemima in a mock commercial, selling Uncle Jemima's Malt Liquor.
"Lemme ask you a question - do you like drinkin’?" Morgan opened the skit. "Hell, you like drinkin’. Who the hell don’t? Well, if you’re like me – you like to get bent just as fast as possible. That’s why I’m proud to introduce to you, Uncle Jemima’s Pure Mash Liquor. I’m Uncle Jemima. You probably know my wife, Aunt Jemima, the Pancake Lady."
In just five seconds, Morgan slapped the viewer with three well-known racist stereotypes about American Blacks. First, the unschooled speaking tone and phrasing. Second, the love of cheap alcohol. Third, a non-threatening but entertaining older southern black man with his farm clothes, bald head and white hair on the sides and back, who refers to himself as Uncle Jemima.
"Now, she says that sellin’ booze is degradin’ to our people. I always say that black folk ain’t exactly swellin’ up with pride on account of you flippin’ flapjack!" Morgan went on. "Then she say, “But why booze?” And I says, “Sell what you know”, and I know about booze."
The sketch was both hilarious and deeply uncomfortable as it exposed the flagrant bigotry behind using a racist stereotype to sell a commercial product.
"Hook a brotha up," Uncle Jemima stated. "Buy some of my pure mash liquor and let’s show that old b*tch there’s more to this world than just makin’ pancake."
Aunt Jemima, also played by Morgan, then stepped out onto the porch, banging a pot and cheerfully calling: "Pancakes is ready!"
"Aw, you shut up, woman!" Uncle Jemima answered, flying into a drunken rage. "You’re not gonna ruin this for me!"
Twenty years later, the parody has lost none of its sting. Like some of Eddie Murphy's work on the show a generation earlier, Morgan mined racial stereotypes to create edgy humour.
The recent fuss about Aunt Jemima's syrup (and Uncle Ben's rice) shows there are still many folks who don't get it and, more importantly, don't want to get it because getting it might require changing beliefs and behaviour.
In the case of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, they are racist caricatures dating back two centuries. In the antebellum (that's the technical word used to describe the American South before the Civil War, so now you know why the popular country band Lady Antebellum recently made the recent change to Lady A) and afterwards, aunt and uncle were honorifics conferred onto older Southern Blacks after a lifetime in service roles in wealthier white households.
Mr. and Mrs., followed by the last name, were titles reserved for whites so aunt and uncle, followed by the first name of the individual, was used. This was the way Southern white children, both in the household and the community, were taught to both show respect to older Blacks while also reminding them of their place.
Now if you're protesting that aunt and uncle are used all the time in the present day for children to refer to a close friend of their parents, therefore what's wrong with Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, you're broadcasting your own privileged experience on others while ignoring both the history and the context.
Once Southern white children became adults, they no longer had to use aunt or uncle. Instead, it was common for them, when speaking either to or about these Black people, to call them the N-word first, then their first name.
Seen in that light, it's pretty easy to appreciate (or it should be) for white folks to not only understand but support the efforts of many Blacks who would like to retire Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben as outdated, racist relics used to sell syrup and rice on supermarket shelves.