The end of Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House filled me with a rage I did not anticipate. The Blandings’ maid Gussie ends up saving the day with a slogan for Mr. Blandings’ WHAM advertisement without knowing it, saying “If you ain’t eating WHAM, you ain’t eating ham!” The movie then ends with an advertisement of Gussie’s photo with her slogan under it. Thanks to Gussie’s work, Blandings is not fired and he and his family can continue to live out their American dream in their beautiful new home.
I can’t help but think about the appropriation of Gussie’s words and likeness in the context of the “Mammy” figure, which pervaded millions of American households for over a century and continues its influence into the modern age through Aunt Jemima products, which are currently owned by Pepsi. Aunt Jemima began as a stereotypical minstrel character during the Reconstruction Era (post-Civil War). From here, it gets a lot worse, mostly in how the Aunt Jemima website tries to sanitize its own history. Instead of admitting that the original model for Aunt Jemima’s image was a former slave, Nancy Green is referred to as a “storyteller and cook.” While I don’t doubt that this woman had a complex and full life, the attempts made by the brand to cover up the racist caricatures of its past is rather disgusting to me.
I think sanitized versions of American history relate strongly to the American housing crisis, especially in neighborhoods that have retained racial homogeneity in the present without making any attempts to integrate. The “Mammy” figure, brought to international attention in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind,” allows white Americans to feel far too comfortable in my opinion. It implies a mythological past where slaves were happy and loved their owners. Under this view, the entire purpose of black lives was to take care of white people. It’s extremely gross. It also invites white people to appropriate black people for their own capitalist aims, similar to the way that subprime mortgage loans were explicitly targeting poor communities with little financial savvy. The smiling black maid allows many who have perpetuated structural inequality and systemic racism to recall a time of greater oppression under the falsehood that it was truly better for everyone, and I am beyond tired of seeing it.
I spent the last five minutes of class emailing Pepsi (the manufacturers of Aunt Jemima products) to complain about their blatant perpetuation of this false and dangerous narrative. If you’d like to do so as well, here is the link. While I don’t think I will singlehandedly bring down this brand, I think it’s important to remind ourselves and oppressive corporations that we know what is happening here and are willing to speak against it.