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Archive for the ‘commercialism’ Category

O pioneers of the digital frontier,

Anyone who’s watched Spike Lee’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes obvious 2000 film Bamboozled, Ferris State University’s  Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia might feel eerily familiar—the docile, self-sacrificing”mammy,” the lazy, stealing, and insatiable “coon” (on the left). Less familiar to some readers may be the sexually virile “Jezebel” stereotype, embodied, curator David Pilgrim argues, by Pam Grier’s blaxploitation turn as Foxy Brown (right).

None of the artifacts on the site are explicitly sourced, which speaks, in part, to the ubiquity of the imagery over a long span of time—so long that the stereotypes’ sources in the abuses of Southern slavery have largely been forgotten. Even reproducing the images feels suspicious to me, since they still beg the viewer to take pleasure in their excesses. Old Aunt Jemima packaging once provoked delight (and relief) in seeing stereotypes depicted, hierarchies confirmed. And yet we’re left with a new ironic laughter, taking pleasure in our shock—our willingness to deride Americans of the past as unforgivably racist without admitting the subtler bigotries of the present. For all its flaws, Bamboozled makes two points worth reflection that minstrelsy continues into the 21st century in less obvious but no less pernicious forms, and that stereotypes have a life and energy of their own, which cannot be easily tamed.

Three books on the subject worth reading: Donald Bogle’s classic Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, about African-Americans in film; M.M. Manring’s Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima; and my advisor Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery.

Last but not least, be sure to check out Slate’s succinct slide show on the history of racist spokescharacters, Uncle—I mean Chairman Ben included.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen

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To students seldom awake before ten,

Like many scholars, I’ve relied on coffee as a lifeline for most of my academic career. By senior year of high school, I was already bringing a plastic mug full of instant Maxwell House (terrible, I know) to class. In college, I even considered footnoting the local convenience store in a freshman year philosophy paper, since I owed their machine-made vanilla lattes at least as much as Kant.

My thoughts turned to coffee this week after reading a great paper-in-progress by a fellow graduate student here at Harvard. Still I wondered, where was the history of coffee on the web? Look no further than the Victorian trade card collection at Miami University in Ohio . Trade cards became popular in nineteenth century America, as a way of advertising products from soap to lawnmowers (to learn more, check out the Baker Library’s online exhibit). In the example below, Uncle Sam himself endorses one brand. The back of the card features these inspiring verses, “Take this from me my people dear / If you’d keep war away/and fill the land with peace and cheer / Do just what I shall say: / I know a beverage full of charm, / there’s magic in the cup. / To cure all ills, to keep from harm, / Drink when you dine or sup.” Sorry, Anglophiles, your Earl Grey tea won’t help you escape the traumas of sickness and strife!Other cards, while produced by coffee companies, didn’t bother to picture the product itself. Arbuckle Brothers, for instance, came up with a number of collectible series, including “sports and pastimes of all nations.”  Check out the gentlemen athletes in the image below, and the coffee instructions on the reverse.

For more coffee-related trade cards, click here. And for yet more cards of all types, check out the collections at the Brooklyn Public Library and University of Iowa.

To see where coffee advertising would go a few decades later, surf over to the always remarkable Prelinger Archives. You’ll quickly discover the theme in these Folgers ads from the 1960s: make a better cup of coffee for your husband, or he’ll be back “at the office” faster than Mad Men‘s debonair Don Draper.  Click on the images below to watch.

Yours perkily,

Stephen

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