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Ralph Hunter at the African American Heritage Museum in Atlantic City. The stereotypes include Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and the front of the Cream of Wheat box Thursday June 25, 2020. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY — Ralph Hunter started collecting stereotypical images of Black people that were used for commercial purposes 44 years ago.

One of the first exhibits ever created by the founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey was called stereotypes when the only branch of the museum was in Newtonville, Buena Vista Township.

The stereotypes exhibit still exists, but now, it is inside the African American Heritage Museum at The Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University on Fairmount Avenue here.

Soon, it will be one of the few places to learn such about the historical packaging of such food as Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mixes, Uncle Ben's rice and Cream of Wheat cereal, which were based on racial stereotypes.

On June 17, PepsiCo, which owns the 130-year-old Aunt Jemima breakfast brand, announced it was scapping it because the image of the black woman on the packaging is based on a minstrel character. In this case, minstrel means a savage parody of a Black person, and it frequently included a person darkening their skin, or being in blackface, to portray a Black person.

On the same day, the parent companies for Cream of Wheat, Uncle's Ben rice and Mrs. Butterworth's pancake syrup said they would revisit their packaging, which was accused of being rooted in racist imagery or stereotypes.

Aunt Jemima is a big part of the museum's stereotype exhibit.

"Two guys (Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood) thought it would be a great idea to use the name Aunt Jemima. It was never a person's name. It was a vaudeville act," said Hunter, 82.

Minstrelsy fell under the broad umbrella of America vaudeville.

She (Aunt Jemima) was treated like caricature, a terrible caricature of human being," Hunter said.

Aunt Jemima was based on the Mammy stereotype, which reinforced the post-Civil War, false narrative of the happy and faithful Black slave, who worked as a domestic servant. The Aunt Jemima portion of stereotypes exhibit shows pictures of her from 1902, 1905, 1906, 1917, 1921 and 1950. In 1989, Aunt Jemima lost her signature bandana and appeared slimmer in her imaging.

The hip-hop group Public Enemy immortalized the change made to Aunt Jemima in its 1990 album track "Burn Hollywood Burn" where guest rapper Big Daddy Kane says, "And Black women in this profession / As for playin' a lawyer, out of the question / For what they play Aunt Jemima is the perfect term / Even if now she got a perm."

In the case of Cream of Wheat, the original Black male character on the cover of that hot cereal box was named Rastus, from 1893 into the 1920s, which is a generic, derogatory term from Black men.

Even after the image on the front of the box was changed, it was replaced by a Black man in a white chef's uniform with a beaming smile, again reinforcing the stereotype of the peaceful kitchen or domestic worker.

Rastus and Cream of Wheat is also a part of the African American Heritage Museum's stereotypes exhibit.

NAACP Atlantic City branch chapter President Kaleem Shabazz, who is also an Atlantic City councilman, said he is not surprised that the Aunt Jemima brand and possibly others will be disappearing as these changes have been sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, who had a white police officer kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in a video.

"We are at a tipping point, not just a moment, but a movement," Shabazz said. "You can't turn a blind eye to what's happening. Symbolism is very important when talking about change."

Even thought Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday museums could open at 25% capacity on July 2, Hunter said he needs to talk to Stockton about when the African American Heritage Museum in the Arts Garage will reopen.

In the meantime, Hunter is talking to Stockton about creating a virtual tour of the African American Heritage Museum, so that people can see the stereotype and other exhibits at aahmsnj.org or artsgarageac.com or both. 

Contact: 609-272-7202

VJackson@pressofac.com

Twitter@ACPressJackson

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