Uncle Ben's is rebranding, but Master P has his own Black-run rice company
'They made billions of dollars off us, off a mockery,' says the rapper and owner of Uncle P's
For years, Percy Miller bought Uncle Ben's rice because he thought it part of African-American culture.
The image of a smiling, elderly Black man in a bow-tie on the box tricked generations of African-Americans into thinking the brand was Black-owned or in some way connected to the Black community, says Miller, a U.S. rapper and businessman better known by his stage name, Master P.
"My grandparents made me buy that product because when they see, you know, Black faces on that, it connected to us as a culture," he told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"When we think of Uncle Ben now, we think of the mockery for African-American families."
Mars Inc. announced on Tuesday that it's changing the name of its rice to Ben's Original, and dropping the controversial logo that has appeared on the packaging for more than 70 years.
Miller celebrates the decision, which he says was "a long time coming."
But rebranding, he says, is never going to be enough to make amends as long as the company lines the pockets of white business owners without investing in the Black community.
That's why he launched his own food brand, Uncle P's, in June, with a selection of packaged foods that serve as alternatives to products that profit from stereotypical Black imagery.
We just need some diversity in these grocery stores to say that we can empower our culture and our community — and that's what I've done.- Percy Miller, a.k.a. Master P
There's rice, for example, as well as pancake mix, cereal and syrup to replace Aunt Jemima — another controversial logo that was dropped in June because of its racist connotations.
"I just think that this is so important for us as a culture. They made billions of dollars off us, off a mockery," Miller said.
"Imagine you got real people that commit, that care about the community and the culture, and that's invested back into the community and the culture."
Uncle P's boxes feature Master P's own smiling face. And the company, he says, hires Black employees at every level, and returns a portion of its profits to Black communities in the form of scholarships, safe houses for youth and senior's programming.
"We just need some diversity in these grocery stores to say that we can empower our culture and our community — and that's what I've done," he said.
The products are being sold at select grocery stories across the U.S., but are not yet available in Canada.
The problem with Uncle Ben's
The biggest problem with the original Uncle Ben's logo is the lie of it, says Miller.
According to Mars, the name was originally inspired by a real-life African-American Texas rice farmer, known for the high quality of his products, while the image was modelled after a Chicago maitre d named Frank Brown — who was reportedly paid the equivalent of $50 for his likeness.
"We thought that that image represented us, it represented the African-American community, it represented the hard work, the labour of our ancestors," Miller said.
"And when we realized that this guy is just the model. That's what makes it shocking."
Over the years, many critics have noted the logo evokes an image of Black servitude, and that the moniker "Uncle" dates back to a period in American history where African-Americans were deemed unworthy by whites of the honorific "Mr." and "Mrs."
Characters like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are "were actually meant to be stand-ins for what white people viewed as a generation of formerly enslaved Black cooks now lost to them," wrote culinary historian Michael Twitty for NBC.
"As mascots, they were designed to be perceived by those white people as nothing more — and to have wanted to be nothing more — than loyal servants, in a frightening time of growing Black equality and empowerment."
Mascots retiring one by one
Mars is just the latest corporation to distance itself from such imagery since a summer of unrest in the U.S. sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
"We listened to our associates and our customers and the time is right to make meaningful changes across society," Fiona Dawson, global president for Mars Food, said in a statement.
"When you are making these changes, you are not going to please everyone. But it's about doing the right thing, not the easy thing."
In June, PepsiCo's Quaker Oats said it will change the name and brand image of its Aunt Jemima products.
That logo was based on the likeness of Nancy Green, a formerly enslaved cook and activist who briefly modelled for the company.
She earned so little from the venture that she was still working as a residential housekeeper when she died in 1910 at the age of 76, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Dreyer's has also promised to re-name its iconic chocolate-covered ice cream bar, which currently bears the name of a slur for Inuit people.
Miller says the only way to move forward is to diversify our grocery store shelves.
"We're just the spark plug. We want thousands of African-Americans, Latinos, minorities to own a product and say, 'We created this. Let's control this,'" he said.
"And that's how we control our future. This is how are we able to send our kids to college and not send them to prison. This how we save our community. We are buying our blocks back; we're not burning them down."
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kate Swoger.