Thursday, May 3, 2018

Aunt Jemima welcomes us into an 1893 World’s Fair that’s not so fun to recall

     Sometimes the obvious sit in plain sight, unnoticed, until someone points it out.
     Despite a lifetime of eating hot dogs, a connection eluded me until I attended Northwestern literature professor Bill Savage’s lecture about ketchup during the Chicago History Museum’s Hot Dog Fest three years ago and he casually dropped the bomb.
     “Two immigrant brothers came here and in 1893, at the World’s Fair, had the brilliant idea to put a viener, a Viennese sausage, in a bun, and voila, the hot dog is born, or at least the Vienna Beef hot dog is born.”
     Ohhh, Vienna led to wiener just as Frankfurt led to frankfurter. Makes sense.

     With the 125th anniversary of the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition May 1, expect fond visits to Chicago’s debut in the global spotlight. The fair’s impact stays with us, in the many products debuted: from Vienna Beef to Aunt Jemima pancakes, from the Ferris wheel to the zipper. The blue ribbon that Pabst beer boasts of on every can was awarded at the 1893 fair. 
     Wait a sec. Aunt Jemima Pancakes … hmm … maybe we better skip that one. Awkward. Uncomfortable.
     Besides, the product had really debuted a few years earlier. The creators of Aunt Jemima went bankrupt in 1890, and a second company relaunched the brand at the fair, hiring a South side cook and former slave named Nancy Green to wear an apron and kerchief and dole out pancakes.

     Too late to turn back now. Anyway, speaking of impact that lingers, Aunt Jemima, and the uncomfortable racial stereotypes clustered around her can do more than ballyhoo pancakes. She also welcomes us to consider an aspect of the fair that, while not as eagerly appreciated as hot dogs or beer, is just as current and far more important.
     In 1890, when the Chicago fair was first being planned, black Americans tried be included in the great exposition—to see their achievements highlighted and celebrated. The Civil War had been over for 25 years. They were citizens now. They had legal rights, supposedly.
     Their effort failed, entirely. No members of the fair committee formed by President Benjamin Harrison were black. There was a representative from Alaska, but when African-American groups officially complained, the president responded that there was just no room.
     "The embarrassment of being ignored by the White House was almost matched by the embarrassment of begging for what Negroes regarded as their right of representation," one historian noted.
     Blacks couldn't even get jobs as guards at the fair. They would try, and be turned away. Of the 65,000 displays and exhibits at the fair, none highlighted the achievements of an African-American.
     Not that they were excluded entirely. White organizers brought in villagers from Western Africa and set them up in a thatched enclosure.
     "As if to shame the Negro," Frederick Douglass wrote, "the Dahomians are also here to exhibit the Negro as a repulsive savage."
     Douglass contributed to a cri di coeur issued by Ida B. Wells. Fresh from a speaking tour of England, she wasn't about to yield the fair to Nancy Green and her pancakes and happy tales of plantation life. Wells printed 20,000 copies of an 80-page booklet titled, "THE REASON WHY the Colored American is not Included in the World's Columbian Exposition" and had them distributed to fairgoers.
     The preface states:
     "At Jackson Park are displayed exhibits of [America's] natural resources, and her progress in the arts and sciences, but that which would best illustrate her moral grandeur has been ignored. The exhibit of the progress made by a race in 25 years for freedom as against 250 years of slavery, would have been the greatest tribute to the greatness and progressiveness of American institutions which could have been shown the world."
     Casting a wide net, the preface was also written in French and German.
     Much of the pamphlet was taken up with lynching, which would peak in 1894. Douglass' introduction, if you substitute execution by skittish cops for lynching, could have been written yesterday.
     "No proof of guilt is required," he wrote. "It is enough to accuse, to condemn and punish the accused with death."
     The pamphlet laid out heartbreaking documentation of black achievement in the arts and sciences, including lists of patents, who could have had a place at the fair, if only society allowed such a thing.
     It would be a double irony if today we looked back warmly at this fair as a high water mark and ignored, once again, the lives of those who were excluded.
     Sometimes the obvious sit in plain sight unnoticed until someone points it out.


  1. The sad part is that most people (and by that I mean white people) would have had no idea that they were racists in those days. White supremacy was taken for granted. What's even sadder is that so many years later that politicians can still use racism to bring out the bigots to vote. And, for all I know, I could be harboring hurtful attitudes as well even though I strive to be rid of them. After all, does a fish know that it's wet?

    1. What you don't know you don't know. Growing up in then lily white Wisconsin, in those days before the natives came to appreciate how adept Black people could be at blocking, tackling, running and catching, I was somewhat taken aback when a fellow student at the U. of C. who happened to be Black told me that going north of Milwaukee he felt like he was in Alabama.


    2. I lived in Racine since 1957. I was ten when I moved here. Wisconsin's African American population totaled 348,308 in 2008, which was 6.1 percent of the state total of 5,672,297. The African American population increased 9.7 percent since the 2000 Census. Milwaukee County is home to 240,203 African Americans, comprising 69.4 percent of Wisconsin's African American population.Sep 10, 2018 Although this was dated 2018, the statistics are from 2008. So still pretty white compared to when ever you lived here.

  2. Wonderful article.

    A reminder what is being suggested by the Make America Great Again crowd. Make America great like it was in 1893 - you know, when our cruel and violent racism didn't have to operate in the shadows.

  3. Oh, but taking notice of the fact that blacks were excluded from the World's Fair would be tantamount to...drumbeat...racial quotas! And as all right-thinking people know, racial quotas are the greatest injustice in the history of mankind.

    1. It's hard to imagine the objections of haters and we don't have to. Glancing in my spam folder, I see their complaints are: a) all these people are dead; b) this happened a long time ago so doesn't matter; c) I'm "playing the racial card" again. The mind reels.

    2. I am sure Limbaugh and others of his ilk plus Fox will be ranting about this all day.

  4. Just saw a segment on the news about 3 high school girls who were in a NASA science competition. The popular voting on the web had to be shut down because of a racist group’s comments. It just pissed me off to hear that these idiots would try to hurt a group of smart girls because they’re black. I guess we still have a ways to go as a society.

  5. My Great grandfather had excavating contracts for the Fairs lagoons. A story in the Trib confirmed he supported the 8 hour workday movement arising at that time. Unfortunately equality in hiring would have to wait. To a degree, we are still waiting. The race card is still in the deck.

  6. While there have been examples of wrongful shootings by police officers, to label it as a "systematic practice" is an overstatement. The wrongful shootings are given an airing in the press, and when adjudicated, punishment is given, and that's the right thing to do, in both cases. But I think if you were to look at every case where an officer shoots someone you would find that they were using allowable and justified deadly force to protect themselves or others. While there are some very unfortunate incidents, the very vast number of officers want to do what's right, and in some cases doing so requires the use of deadly force.

  7. While there have been documented cases where officers used deadly force in an unjustified way, those incidents have been aired, and where warranted, punishment handed out. Calling it a "systematic practice is unfair. I believe that if you were to look at every case where an officer used deadly force you would find that their actions were justified under the guidelines for the use of deadly force in order to protect themselves or others from harm. With some egregious exceptions, police officers do not want to use deadly force, but the reality is that in certain circumstances they must.

  8. love the writings of Ida B. Wells

  9. I guess I am the only one who didn't realize you wrote this in 2018.

  10. Farewell, Aunt Jemima. Good-bye, Uncle Ben. There is bound to be a "run" on products bearing these racial stereotypes by collectors of what is euphemistically called "black memorabilia", much of which has to be seen to be believed.

    A black man in Harlem owns one of he largest such collections on the planet. His home is almost like a private museum of racist artifacts. My own wife's cousin had some of that stuff on his walls, until his wife finally made him get rid of them. They were far more offensive than any product logo.

    Why did he collect them, you ask? Because...he thought they were funny.


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