Sunday, November 01, 2009

What Would Jemima Do?

Editor's note: For all of my analysis, devotion, and, yes, love of the Washington Redskins, it did not occur to me until the last few years that my favorite team's namesake was possibly politically incorrect. And maybe just a little mean. As I read recently that the trademark lawsuit alleging that the Skins' name and symbol are derogatory will be ruled on soon by the Supreme Court, I decided that I had to take some position on my own. Hence, the following. I welcome your feedback.

[Fade in to: studio audience applause and "The Next Movement" instrumental by the Roots]

Jeff Jones: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the Redskins Review. If there is one issue that continues to be a source of controversy within the proud heritage of the Washington Redskins, it is, oddly, with the very name of the franchise. Here today to give her unique perspective is a well-known American icon, a woman whose name and face have been a part of the first meal for generations. Please help me welcome… Aunt Jemima.

[Enthusiastic audience applause]

Aunt Jemima: Great to be here, Jeff. How is the family?

Jeff: They are eating well, I assure you! [Polite audience laughter] And you’re looking great for 120 years old. What’s your secret?

Aunt Jemima: Well Jeff I don’t let my mind rest. Waste not, want not! I recently finished my master’s degree in social and behavioral sciences and I plan to pursue work with the National Women’s Studies Association. I get plenty of sleep…and having breakfast every day doesn’t hurt. [Winks at audience, who laughs and applauds]

Jeff: Indeed! Now, you have enjoyed an impressive record of commercial success, but your image has been no stranger to controversy. What do you make of the lawsuit and issue surrounding the name “Redskins.”

Aunt Jemima: Jeff, it’s all too familiar. Here we have a profitable business that, even though it has a long history, refuses to get with the times because of its own arrogance and naïveté. That football owner, Daniel Snyder, is so misguided that he believes he knows better how to honor a group of people than they do. That’s what this whole situation boils down to.

Jeff: Speaking of profit, the Quaker Oats folks certainly have made some off of you, haven’t they?

Aunt Jemima: You know, I haven’t always been represented on your waffles and pancake boxes with my pearl earrings and permed hair. No, dear, I was once drawn as an overweight, big smiling, bandana-wearing, batter-stirring mammy who was just all too eager to “make y’all summa mah fluffy, energizin’ pancakes!” [Nervous laughter from audience]

I started out as a joke—a joke!—from a minstrel show, and an enterprising person thought that the look, the name, and the image would be a great way to sell some ready-made mix. Yet now my face and name help sell hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of food.

Jeff: Your look today is quite different than in the past. Why is that?

Aunt Jemima: Well, the NAACP and lots of regular folk fought back against the presentation of me as that happy heavyweight. Back then, my image connected consumers to the days of the Old South—a time when the inhumanities of slavery seemed to be justified by the images of people like me smiling, just as happy as we can be. The mammy was to the kitchen what a field Negro was to the cotton field. To make it simple, the marketing was all about convincing white women that they could have the benefits of a southern black woman-made pancake without all that uncomfortable servant-guilt stuff. It was quite successful, even in the face of protests. The press even mocked the NAACP’s efforts to have me better reflect African-American women, saying it was futile and quixotic. But, thankfully, they didn’t believe the corporate excuses and justifications.

Jeff: Even now the Quaker Oats company describes your former image as “large, gregarious, with the face of an angel.”

Aunt Jemima: [Laughs and rolls eyes] Talk about spin city. But that’s what’s going on with the Washington Redskins. History is written by the victors, Churchill once said, and the Redskins’ history of racial intolerance gets spun like drawers in a dryer. The organization acknowledges that they were named by an unrepentant, racist owner, George Marshall, who once said that the team’s colors were “burgundy, gold, and Caucasian.” He didn’t want African-Americans on his team and fought it until he had to give in so he could use the stadium that became RFK. He wanted his team to represent the Old South, just like my old image.

Jeff: Not exactly a good foundation to build on, eh?

Aunt Jemima: Hardly. So Snyder and the team really believe that this guy wanted to honor Native Americans with the team name? Right, and the original fight song saying “Scalp ‘em, swamp ‘em — we will take ‘em big score” is a love lyric to the Native American community. I wonder if the coach referenced by the team name was ever asked if he wanted to be honored that way. Heaven knows I sure wasn’t asked if I wanted “Dixieland” sung on my early radio commercials.

Jeff: What about the Redskins organization’s legal arguments, you know, about the percentages of Native Americans not offended by the name?

Aunt Jemima: There’s all this argument about how many Native Americans were polled, how they were asked, and so on. The Redskins may have asked Native Americans if they were offended by the name, but did they ask “Hey, do you feel honored? Do you like how this company has chosen to honor you?” Those are very different questions.

Then I think about the likeness—it’s a dark, red-skinned man on their helmet. Whether such and such dictionary says that “redskin” refers to skin color, or to war paint, or whatever, the point is still that the team has a red-skinned guy as their symbol. Honestly, who in today’s times uses skin color to describe a people? “Black” might be the only exception, and even then it’s inaccurate and refers more to culture, and that is defined by African-Americans. Not other people. That’s why I mentioned the arrogance earlier.

Jeff: So what are you suggesting the Washington Redskins do, lose millions of dollars over the protests of a small minority?

Aunt Jemima: Do you know what would happen if they changed the name on my box to Aunt J’s or replaced my picture with a platter of steaming food? People would buy the box and go make pancakes. Do you know how many Redskins fans would root for the team if the name were Warpath or Monuments? I’ll tell you: all of them. Marketing 101 says that if you have a good product and good promotion, people will buy it. Even--what do you call him, Snydely?--he understands that.

If Danny humbly stated that he thought it over and wants to honor the Native Americans by choosing a less divisive name, he’d win major PR points and also have the chance to sell a whole new style of hat and bumper sticker. Recycle the unsold Redskins products and he’s managed the politically correct trifecta! [Audience applauds]

Jeff: Well said! That’s all the time we have. Thank you, Aunt Jemima, for joining us and sharing your insights. Say, any truth to the rumor that you and Mrs. Butterworth are still not on speaking terms?

Aunt Jemima: Well, you can’t believe everything you hear…!

[Audience laughs and applauds. Fade out]

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