Firing Stephen Foster, Promoting Uncle Ben

30 03 2007

What follows is completely true and yet unreal.
Stephen Foster met Uncle Ben in my radio reverie this morning. For real, or so it seemed. (Y’all know I hear odd connections in that place between asleep and awake.)

Two southern stories that seem literally black and white, but turn out to be anything but!
Radio news reported that the Southland’s good old-fashioned composer is on his way out; our conservative and affable new governor actually refuses to have our state song played in his presence (yet in the same breath he says, “whatever the people want satisfies me” . . .which sure sounds unreal to me.)

Nobody said anything unmannerly or politically correct about unpopular language, although that’s likely the truth behind it. One legislator did mention the word “darkies” but to hear them tell the story, it’s not that, just that the times they are a’changin’ . . .hey, now THAT would make a great state song!

Meanwhile good old-fashioned Uncle Ben got a promotion to Chairman of the Board. He isn’t the kindly kitchen rice-cooker anymore, now he’s the Donald Trump of Rice, with his own fancy penthouse office, jet-setting schedule and authoritative rice-education curriculum. (You can poke around his empty office, open his travel journal, it feels almost like corporate espionage, with him hanging on the wall watching your every move!)

One a real human, the other made up as marketing image. (Although real and made up aren’t “really” opposites either, see Straight Dope’s “Were Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima real people?”.)

One going down for the last time, the other movin’ on up.

One dead and therefore dismissed; the other never alive in the first place and therefore lives on (hmm, an apt juncture to consider all the meanings of “immortal” fitting together. . .)

And silly me, I thought “Uncle Ben” was already made over by the Spiderman blockbusters anyway.


But what the composer and the kitchen help do share, and why my mind connected them unbidden, is that these famous identities were both born of vague cultural stereotyping, human belief embodied in “art” that first captures our imagination but grows real enough to threaten us and thus need killing or elevating to higher power, (either is risky in itself). . .which btw connects to a third radio story this morning, Dr. Anne Daugherty’s review of the new dvd, “The Prestige” . . . if Ogden Nash is right and we’ll all be Kansas by and by, at least she’ll be there to make the cultural reality of that a bit more bearable. 🙂

Are those the only two choices we have as a people, to satisfy ourselves? Kill or exalt our own stories, what kind of integration or progress is that?
Is “affable conservative” the old style, or the new — and should we kill it, or worship it now?

I think we tried both already, what’s left? (yeah, okay, pun intended)
If “whatever the people want” will satisfy affable conservatism, then what DO we want? Why don’t we ask ourselves what the heck we need an official state song for anyway — and a state flower and animal and bug and tree, much less a state brand of rice?

Maybe instead we could focus on something that we might all actually *want* and be able to use, wouldn’t that be more likely to “satisfy?”

When current culture and diversity tires of, wears out, or just can’t fit into old wardrobes, what to do? Save them in the cedar chest for the grandkids? Restyle and repeat? Burn em, hang em, hand em down intact to those less fortunate, apologize for ever having worn them at all (yes! if we’re talking the 1970s) — or maybe makeover the culture instead of the clothes? There are no simple answers and not much common culture to draw on (or about) anymore.

Diversity has its own edgy style, and dress codes don’t fit diversity. The State cannot hope to adopt any official anything that will fit, to satisfy all the people. Maybe statewide song choices can’t be one size fits all any more than schools, churches or Uncle Ben’s rice can. (Or homeschools.)

Need. More. Coffee . . .and don’t drink the funny-face imitation koolaid . . .

1964 Pillsbury “Funny” only it wasn’t



20 responses

30 03 2007

Favorite Daughter is so interesting these days, it’s like the payoff for unschooling all these years — somehow without being forced to learn anything at all, she’s a fascinating young woman I am awed by and can’t wait to see what she thinks of next!

When she read this post, her comments were:

1) that she liked the photo juxtaposition of Uncle Ben first with Aunt Jemima, then Uncle Ben with Aunt May. Brilliant! Wish I’d done it on purpose. 🙂
( Current culture calls for a whole new visual literacy out there folks, are your kids keeping up? Are you?)

2) that unlike the reports about Governor Crist, Abraham Lincoln saw no need to shut his ears against the song “Dixie” even in his official capacity. This stopped me cold, just like the rooty-toot for Smoot the other day. Oh yes, she says rummaging in her bag for a paperback she chose from Borders a few weeks ago, “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” by James Swanson:

Lincoln did not have a prepared text for the throng of enthusiastic seranaders and marchers begging him to address postwar policy for the south, so he resorted to his favorite oratorical device to distract and disarm an audience — humor.
“I see that you have a band of music with you. I have always thought Dixie to be one of the best tunes I have ever heard. . .I presented this question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. I now request the band to favor me with its performance!”

30 03 2007

I doubt either of her original perceptions appear in our official state schools? 🙂

30 03 2007

“Sound is my servant” seems to fit here too, with all this about choosing one correct state song to play and listen to, and new integrated forms of “creating” alternate reality through multiple senses — could Star Trekesque holodecks be far behind? 🙂

5 04 2007

Just remembered “rice” can be a verb. It means to SIEVE anything so that it becomes the uniform consistency of rice (rice is extremely consistent) — to “separate by passing through a sieve or other straining device to separate out coarser elements.”

Separate? Uniform consistency? Strain? Coarser elements?
UGH – sounds like the sorority at DePauw.
Not that crazy about the “device” passing through, either.
So if Uncle Ben is being promoted into some cultural symbol of triumph over beliefs and institutions hostile to individuals and diversity, he might want to get himself another international corporate product, maybe silly string?

No matter what you’re selling, the single most important thing to integrate is ALWAYS Power of Story. 🙂

8 04 2007
Teaching What's "Very Important" About Easter Holiday « Cocking A Snook!

[…] there she goes again! JJ is just being troublesome, complicating what is nothing more than “whatever the people want” as he perceives it, being a personable and gracious southern gentleman not even trying to make any political, […]

29 04 2007

Slate posted a slideshow last week:

Uncle Ben, CEO?
The strange history of racist spokes-characters

By David Segal

The captions for 15 slides covering everything from Sambo’s to team sports mascots concludes:

Today no company would be dumb enough to build a brand around a black servant but the ones now in supermarkets have been rendered innocuous by the passage of time, image overhauls and judicious wardrobe adjustments. But it’s worth remembering what these spokescharacters (Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima) truly are: a final living vestige of Jim Crow America.

It made me think about public schools and what was happening to them in the 60s when SCOTUS found them racist and ordered forced busing on the South. Time has passed while school systems engage in repeated image overhauls (called “reform”) and the judicious wardrobe adjustments keep on coming — even now dress codes and school uniforms are promoted as the solution to what’s wrong with how poorly schools are selling. Can stereotypical and obsolescing schoolish symbols that the public no longer wants to buy into, be saved by clever marketing techniques, spiffier offices and better dressing?

25 09 2007
God Bless America: School Fight Song for Our Times « Cocking A Snook!

[…] governor (with political purposes) won’t even let it be played in his public home! — he’s looking for enough public money to officially silence the old folks at home, for public school music teachers put on a “campaign” with the state’s kids at […]

26 10 2007
What’s New for Halloween Power of Story? You Figure It Out! « Cocking A Snook!

[…] need to go look up stereotype, I guess, but in my understanding of words and power of story, “derogatory” is inherent in how ANY stereotype feels on the receiving end. And there should be a picture of “School” as stereotypical next to its definition! […]

11 12 2007

Florida’s (political) need for a new state song comes to a head:
“Just Sing, Florida”

11 01 2008

The latest twist is to leave “Old Folks at Home” alone and unsung but technically still on the books as the official state song, and just vote in an official state “anthem” to take over in practice — it’s for the kids, you know, to make them feel their government cares about who they are, and what they want and need, in these changing times. . .

But seriously, what DOES that teach our kids about worthy government policy, dealing with change and conflicting agenda problems in the culture, evaluating options and making decisions that will never be easy or clear but progressing nevertheless? I still think a better lesson would be to admit state songs are inexcusable political idiocy in dangerous and uncertain times, and that a new day of grown-up leadership and progress is the only right change left. (or change left right? Either way . . .)

29 02 2008

Soo, you want to change the state song because it has words that relate to slavery. If that’s the case, lets change the state name. It was “Florida” during the slavery era. The state flag, by the way has a St. Andrews cross on it, the same as the confederate battle flag and it has a Seminole woman on it also. Some Seminoles were black. Lets go a little further. We’ll have to change everything about the nation. Slaves were brought here by the U.S. not the Confederacy, under the U.S. flag. Maybe we can change the national name to “Afro America” then maybe they’ll be satisfied.
Crist is a coward and spit on my vote when he decided to spit on the state by not allowing Old Folks at Home to be played at his inauguration. He’s not even a Floridian. He’s from Pennsylvania. Hmm. Just like Foster. Its time to get some native Floridians in office. Someone that cares about Florida and not the minority vote.

29 02 2008

Really, he’s from PA? Never heard that, interesting.

Why are you as a native so attached to Old Folks at Home though, seriously? You know the composer Stephen Foster never even set foot here? I’ve known and worked with several administrations (R and D) and it seems to me Charlie Crist’s is currently more popular than any of them, in terms of raw approval percentage. Why would he need to pander to the minority vote more than others then?

1 03 2008

Some vast conspiracy wrought by PA, no doubt.


1 03 2008

So does PA have a state song, about coal mining or steel-smelting or something? Inquiring minds want to know! 😉

1 03 2008

Flag, bell, keystone. . . no, no smelting. 🙂

And no mention of race, either.


1 03 2008

BUT WAIT! Did you see this at the bottom??

The official state song of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was adopted by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Robert P. Casey on November 29, 1990.

It’s not even 20 years old! Maybe it IS a conspiracy to destroy our heritage state by state! 😉

1 03 2008

No, I missed that. You really have to be on your toes to keep up with all these plots! 🙂


2 07 2008
When Praying to Gods Makes Hard-nosed Business Sense. . . « Cocking A Snook!

[…] True. American reality already counts among its CEO ranks at least one such presence — kindly, inspiring, knowledgeable, and of course immortal. […]

14 09 2010
To Live the Good Life? « Cocking A Snook!

[…] (Not that I confuse fictional and real characters but OTOH see Stephen Foster and Uncle Ben.) […]

26 04 2012

Funny postscript here in 2012, five years after the original essay above. I linked it to a Facebook discussion and on a whim, clicked to check the Uncle Ben corporate tour that had so impressed me with its Donald Trump-ness. Guess what?

Completely erased! Now the site is a humble, little-woman-at-home-friendly food site with cartoons that look l;ike they were drawn by your kids at the kitchen table. No go-go corporate power to be found! (Does this mean Uncle Ben is back in the kitchen with us or is he just too rich to give office tours anymore?)

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