Cream of Wheat | Study Guide

Lucille Clifton

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Cream of Wheat | Themes


Importance of Names

In a 2007 interview with National Public Radio, Clifton gave a reading of an earlier version of "cream of wheat" and described the poem as one of several she was currently working on that "deal with naming" and "the difference between what one calls someone and what they call themselves."

Throughout the poem the speaker questions what his name is and whether he even has a real name at all. This quest for a name is key to the speaker's personality and experience. It should be noted that the speaker is the chef character portrayed on the Cream of Wheat box and not the actual human who portrayed the character, however the speaker's search for a name conflates the two. When the speaker claims he once read in an "old paper" that his name was Rastus, he means the man who portrayed him. Perhaps because the mascot himself was never named he must build an identity around the unknown person in whose image he was created.

Even in proposing that his name might be "Rastus," the speaker seems to discount it, skeptical of the name and remarking that "no mother ever / gave that to her son." The phrase "no mother ever / gave that to her son" may have an additional meaning, harkening back to the days of slavery when slave children would have been named by their masters rather than by their own mothers. Thus, the name "Rastus" is a slave name, a name forced upon its owner, much as the Cream of Wheat mascot's identity is forced upon him by the company that created the advertisement. The final lines, "i simmer [/] what / is my name," express the speaker's frustration in trying to claim an identity for himself.

Interestingly, the man who historians have identified as the original model for the Cream of Wheat mascot, Frank L. White (1867–1938), was buried in a cemetery in Michigan without a name on his grave marker.

Dehumanizing Effects of Commercialism

In the poem "cream of wheat," Clifton uses the subject of the Cream of Wheat mascot as a vehicle for exploring how commercialism can dehumanize and subjugate people and ideas. The speaker wonders early in the poem about "what ever pictured [him] / and left [him] personless." That Clifton chose the word "what" and not "who" is significant and intentional, because it's not a question of who owned Cream of Wheat or who commissioned the design of the character Rastus but rather the force that could take the image of a human being and strip him of all personality. That force is commercialism.

Commercialism took the picture of a chef with a name, history, and personality and boiled his image down to a smiling caricature with a fake name (Rastus) that was eventually forgotten and discarded, leaving the Cream of Wheat mascot even more devoid of personhood. Within the poem's narrative the mascots are only able to escape their boxes and wander the aisles of the supermarket at night when the store is closed for business. Before the market reopens they return to their boxes and wear their smiles once again, because during store hours the mascots are shackled to the names and identities affixed to them by commercialism.

This theme is also explored in other Clifton poems from the same collection, "aunt jemima" and "uncle ben." Together with "cream of wheat," these three poems allowed Clifton to critique the dehumanizing and exploitative effects of commercialism.

"Rastus" Left behind by History

Although it's an easy line to overlook, line 5, "i lag behind," is important to understanding the overall message of the poem. Clifton sequences the three brand-mascot poems ("aunt jemima," "uncle ben," and "cream of wheat") because together the three mascots represent how African Americans have been represented in American society, commerce, and culture. Rastus, the Cream of Wheat mascot, was from his inception grounded in racist attitudes about African Americans. His image portrayed a happy, subservient chef, ignorant and given to speaking in a colloquial style of speech. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were created in much the same mold, and for many years all three were left unchanged.

However, in 1989 (for Aunt Jemima) and 2007 (for Uncle Ben) the other two mascots' images were updated, their characters rehabilitated to strip away some of the outdated racist associations. Aunt Jemima, for instance, was slimmed down and depicted as a wealthier woman, while Uncle Ben was changed from a poor farmer to a wealthy and shrewd executive in charge of running the corporation. Whether these changes have truly uplifted the brands from their racist roots is a matter for interpretation, but what is certain is that unlike his counterparts, "Rastus" has never been updated. Although the company was purchased by B&G Foods Inc. in 2007, no rebrand occurred, and boxes of Cream of Wheat still bear the smiling likeness of Rastus, though the name "Rastus" is no longer used to refer to him.

In the poem Clifton has Rastus lagging behind his companions and even excludes him from their reminiscing. This interpretation is supported by Clifton's intonation during her reading of the poem—despite the gap she inserts in line 4. Rastus is presented as on the outside looking in, a sort of third wheel to the old friends Ben and Jemima. Possibly Clifton does this to suggest how, unlike Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben products, which are still very popular, Cream of Wheat today struggles to sell its product to younger demographics, and thus Rastus is less successful than his companions. It's also possible, however, that Rastus lagging behind is less a commentary on relative brand popularity and more about how the mascot is stuck in the racist past his companions escaped.

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