It took more than a century, but corporate America finally decided that branding sugar syrup with the image of a Black kitchen slave is bad form. It’s “based on a racial stereotype,” the suits at PepsiCo explained when they announced the plan to rename the Aunt Jemima product line.
You just realized it was a racial stereotype? Really?
I mean, wasn’t that the whole point?
Ah, but 130 years of brainwashing kids at the kitchen table is just the beginning.
Right here in Colorado we have blithely accepted a high-profile memorial to racism as if the Black lives belittled by it don’t matter at all.
Less than a year ago, 65% of the property owners in Stapleton voted to retain the community’s name.
That name honors Benjamin Stapleton, Denver’s 1920s-era mayor, who vowed at a KKK campaign rally, “I will work with the Klan and for the Klan … heart and soul. And if I’m re-elected, I shall give the Klan the kind of administration it wants.”
If we’re being generous, we can assume than most Stapleton property owners are innocently ill-informed and were unaware that there was any meaning behind the name of their neighborhood other than a tribute to a defunct airport famous for flight delays and searing noise pollution in Northeast Denver neighborhoods.
When he was mayor, the airport’s namesake proudly put klansmen in police department leadership and judicial roles, named a klansman city attorney and rejected a plan from a developer to build a home for elderly Black citizens calling it a hazard to public health.
During Stapleton’s administration, anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments were openly fostered under the KKK refrain of “100% Americanism,” and Jewish and Catholic school children were frequently subjected to intense ridicule from the community in the grip of KKK propaganda.
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It took the killing of George Floyd nearly 100 years later to get white folks to even try to understand how craven is the memorialization of a white supremacist who served five terms as mayor giving the KKK “the kind of administration it wants.”
Not just incidentally, it also took the passion of Black Lives Matter protesters this month who shook white communities from the comfort of their willful ignorance to wake up and confront the injustice.
Black Lives Matter advocate and Denver School Board member Tay Anderson announced the protesters intentions via Twitter: “No threat – it’s a promise that we will peacefully march through their neighborhood to show #BlackLivesMatter and we will NOT honor racists.”
So, in a stunning reversal, the Stapleton Master Community Association responded last week by releasing a statement that “it has become more clear” that the name is “hurtful to many residents of all backgrounds and life experiences.”
A new name will be considered.
Now, a new name is a swell idea. But the casual white supremacism that allowed the memorials to Benjamin Stapleton to remain intact for so long will not go away just because the community is renamed Springfield or Pleasantville … or something.
It gurgles to the surface every time neighborhoods organize to prevent affordable housing on the premise of preserving property values and the cherished integrity of the (white) community. It’s buried in education budgets when school fundraisers in white neighborhoods produce enough money to add not just new playground equipment but more teaching staff members while similar events in Black and brown neighborhoods generate chump change.
It’s in your face when leaders insist we can’t afford reparations for slavery and its legacy of systemic racism because, after all, that happened a long time ago.
Memorials to guys like Stapleton legitimize white supremacy and can seem to sanitize the history of hate in our community.
Product brands designed to convey sweetness and the joy of being privileged enough to be served by an a cheerful slave are not superficial symbols.
Their meaning can’t be diluted by time and white obliviousness.
Their effects are corrosive and oppressive, and they only get worse as the weight of history and injustice increases.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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