No company would run this kind of ad today

…and expect to reach the top of its market. Back in the day, however, America’s dominant culture saw nothing wrong with the image an ignorant, simpleton black man selling hot cereal.

With all the discussion about whether it was overkill for MSNBC and CBS to can Imus for his “nappy-headed ho” remarks — because sponsors didn’t want to be associated with racist, misogynist comments — take a look at this ad at left and the accompanying text by David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology, Ferris State University (and the The Jim Crow Museum), as he discusses “Commercial Toms.”

Rastus was created in 1893 by Emery Mapes, one of the owners of North Dakota’s Diamond Milling Company. He wanted a likable image to help sell packages of “breakfast porridge.” Maples, a former printer, remembered the image of a Black chef among his stock of old printing blocks. He made a template of the Black chef and named the product Cream of Wheat.

…Rastus, like Aunt Jemima, is more than a company trademark — he is arguably a cultural icon. Rastus is marketed as a symbol of wholeness and stability. The toothy, well-dressed Black chef happily serves breakfast to a nation. In 1898 Cream of Wheat began advertising in national magazines. These advertisements were often reproduced as posters. Many of those advertisements are, by today’s standards, racially insensitive.

Racially insensitive.  Times change, friends, and what was once acceptable in America at some point became unacceptable.

And that’s where we are now. Someone calls out the bigotry and insensitivity, and the innocence is lost; those who gave Imus a pass all these years got a wake-up call, and the sponsors realized they could no longer sell their products on a show that reveled in racial stereotypes, slurs, misogyny and bigotry without consequences.

That’s not stifling free speech, or about being thought police, it’s a realization that a cultural norm has shifted — even so, some will long for the “good times” when they could toss out “nappy-headed ho” and get a pass. And that’s what we saw.

See related posts on this topic.

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