61. Oh my, where do we even begin with the Cream of Wheat guy? How do we explain this smiling, reassuring face we see on every trip down the cereal aisle?
In 2017, some may wonder how there could be any issues with this iconic figure. Today, chefs are celebrities. To us, it may seem a positive thing to see an African American in full chef’s garb assuring us that Cream of Wheat is something we ought to have on our breakfast table.
But…there’s another side to the story.
It starts in the 1890s, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, an hour’s drive from the Canadian border. A flour mill, seeking to stave off bankruptcy after the Panic of 1893, developed a new product, a breakfast porridge generically known as farina. This “Cream of Wheat” caught on, and by 1897, the company had to move its operations to Minneapolis, the milling powerhouse, to keep up with the demand.
One of the mill’s officers, Emery Mapes (1853-1921), had some commercial art and advertising experience, and had put a face on the product: a chef named “Rastus.”
And that’s where things get uncomfortable.
Why “Rastus”? It’s an extremely uncommon name. In the 1870 Census, for instance, there were only 42 in the entire country, and only four of them were identified as black or mulatto. But somehow, the name had become intricately linked with African Americans by the conventions of the minstrel show.
In the standard minstrel show, the “Rastus” character was happy, simple, and often skating on the wrong side of the law.
An 1887 Harper’s Weekly cartoon combined a couple of stereotypes to create an “Uncle Rastus,” hauled before the judge.
In the early 1900s, “Rastus” had become a movie character as well. In the 1910 comedy “How Rastus Gets His Turkey,” Rastus successfully steals his family’s Thanksgiving turkey, but does so in a clumsy, buffoonish way.
True to the minstrel show tradition, movie Rastus was played by a white actor in blackface
Cream of Wheat spent a lot on advertising, and hired well-known artists to create a wide variety of images of Chef Rastus at work. Many might be seen as “slice of life” Americana, and are not inherently offensive, such as this one of the chef at work in his hotel kitchen:
But others played to the demeaning stereotypes of the time. In a particularly shameful 1921 example, Rastus brings his own message, set in ignorant minstrel dialect:
On the face of it, the logic of the ad makes no sense. The Chef, in his immaculate cooking wear, is supposed to represent the product’s quality and purity. That was the selling point. At the turn of the century, led by the Kelloggs and C.W. Post, cereals were considered to be “health” food, both delicious and wholesome. We see it in this more straightforward ad:
So if we’re selling product purity, why make the spokesman sound like an imbecile? This is where we run into the contradictions of the Jim Crow/Minstrel Show era. If the Chef had to speak directly, he couldn’t be shown as an intelligent, knowledgeable person. That person might want to vote. That wouldn’t fit the Rastus side of the stereotype.
In this 1916 ad, Rastus’ face appears next to the stereotyped character of the little black kid who’s able to escape the bulldog because he’s eaten his Cream of Wheat, but in the process, he loses the apples in his pockets, which we’re supposed to assume he’s stolen:
In this 1929 “A Case of Desertion” ad, we find Cream of Wheat combined with the classic “watermelon” stereotype:
There was also a Mrs. Rastus. I don’t know if she was ever named. She is presented as a “mammy” figure, similar to the Aunt Jemima artwork of the period, complete with bandana and apron:
Believe it or not, this is one of the more humane versions
Again, looking back from our 21st Century perspective, the ads seem self-contradicting. The star is the smiling chef producing a bowl of wholesome cereal. So why surround him with a cast of stereotypes: the apple thief, the watermelon boy, the mammy in her apron?
What we’re seeing in these ads represents the infantilization of the black population. Before the Civil War, part of pro-slavery propaganda was that enslaved people were happy. (And many slave owners would go to extreme lengths to hide whipping and other torture scars that would evidence otherwise). After the Civil War, this turned into the sentimentality of the minstrel shows and the “Brer Rabbit” stories (which also included a Brer Rastus character). The popular media image of African Americans in general, and men in particular, was that they were happy, harmless buffoons who did not need to be taken seriously:
Why did anyone think this would be a big seller?
Unfortunately, that image has never entirely disappeared. Even in 2013, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson reflected on his relationships with black folks back in the old days, and declared that “they was happy” under Jim Crow. It surfaced again in 2016 with Bill O’Reilly’s feisty insistence that the enslaved workers who built the White House were “well-fed.”
So what’s the moral of the story? After all, it’s 2017, not 1917, and as President Obama reminded us more than once, things have changed. Whether our personal heritage traces back more to Africa or Europe or elsewhere, many of us feel obliged to insist that #blacklivesmatter precisely because our society doesn’t act like they matter, or at least not enough to start addressing the key issues that created the need for such a movement.
Whoa! What does all that have to do with the 21st Century version of the Cream of Wheat guy? After all, the ads don’t call him Rastus any more, with all of that minstrel show baggage. He’s not presented to us as a household servant, but rather, purely as the Chef, and a chef in a day when chefs are TV stars.
We should think about it anyway. In the 2016 election cycle, some tried to write-off discussions like these as “political correctness,” used as a pejorative. But representation is important. Media depictions and characterizations shape perceptions, especially when it comes to a figure with a back story like the Chef’s.
If we see the Chef is a star worthy of a spot on Top Chef or Chopped, then eat your Cream of Wheat and enjoy it. But if he makes us think of a back-of-house line cook stirring hot cereal for $7.25 an hour, then we’ve got problems. Does his life matter? Or does the image simply reinforce the Republican Administration’s dystopic vision of “American carnage,” where things are so hopeless that we should just shrug our shoulders, and say “What have you got to lose?”
It’s not just about choosing between wheat, rice, oatmeal, or grits.
(There’s more to the story of the Cream of Wheat guy. Watch this space.)