FAST-US-7 'Names' in U.S. Popular Culture
Connotations of the Names Rastus and Liza
FAST-US-7 (TRENAK15) United States Popular Culture (Hopkins)
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere


The names Rastus and Liza were often used in 19th and 20th century America as generic references to black men and women — originally perhaps as innocent, 'non-loaded' nominals for blacks one encountered whose names one didn't know, but often also to crudely stereotype blacks as sexually-charged and simple-minded.

While one can also find in the U.S. population many non-black "Lizas" (a deriviative of "Elizabeth" in most cases) and a few non-black males named "Rastus" (not a common U.S. male name), in popular language the connotations carried by the names, especially when used together, are overwhelmingly of black characters who are being satirized. Needless to say, in recent years such usage has not been considered "politically correct," and there is now relatively limited use (apart from crude jokes) of the names, though references remain common in folk stories or folk histories of the 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries.

Following are several examples of how the names of Rastus alone (see also a Wikipedia article), and Rastus and Liza together, have been used in the past. The first is a passage from a personal memoir by Emile R. Paillou of life in Boonville, Missouri titled Home Town Sketches, originally published in 1926 by The Stratford Company, Boston, Massachusetts.

    Driftwood

    How childlike is the primitive mind! Perhaps it would be more exact to say how primitive is the childish mind, for as the child is the inheritor of all the ages that have gone before, so he must pass through, in our brief lifetime, all the stages of development that has taken perhaps a million years in actual time!

    We can better understand this since Einstein's law of Relativity has been promulgated. But most of us stop on the way and so have childish, primitive minds in adult bodies. What is this all about, you ask?

    Well, there was once a Boonville man who, looking for a "hand" along the river bank, saw a likely negro industriously fishing driftwood out of the water.

    He hailed; "Rastus, you want a job?"
    "I done got me a job, boss man."
    "What's your job and what do you get?"
    "Well, sah, Capt. Faris he done hired me for to ketch driftwood, and he gibs me haff o' whut I ketches."

    And do you think that Rastus could be convinced that there was anything wrong in the bargain? He could not, for Rastus' mind struck a snag when he was about five years old. Some folks are like that.

In Paillou's writing, referring to a period earlier than the 1926 year of publication, the word "negro" was probably not intended to be pejorative; there is no indication that Rastus indicates anything more than a name of convenience for an unknown man. Clearly, though, Rastus is black; equally clearly he is not portrayed as being very bright. Thus an association of "inferiority" or "caricature" is associated with Rastus, whether intended or not.

Similarly, in the 1907 photo below, one may question whether the boy's name was really "Rastus" or whether the name was again a "generic labelling" for the black male. Note also the handwritten caption implying that Rastus might be cheating. Might this reflect a common stereotype, or contribute to one; or was it only coincidental?

A different usage of Rastus as an "anonymous" black male name is found in advertisements for the well-known American breakfast cereal Cream of Wheat (cf. Finnish puuro). Pictured on the front of each Cream of Wheat package from 1900 (see below) through the present has been a tall, smiling black chef named Rastus, who is shown serving the product to smiling children. As such there is no loading to the portrayal or name.

However, Rastus was one of several black American advertising symbols for food products; the portrayal of blacks as cooks or waiters in such advertising has been claimed to reinforce past stereotypes of blacks as obedient servants — an image hardly popular among either blacks or politically-correct whites from the 60s onward (although there are also food products portraying whites similarly, Betty Crocker and Sara Lee, for example). (For more detail on the Cream of Wheat Rastus see Ross Kendrix' The Advertiser's Holy Trinity: Aunt Jemima, Rastus, and Uncle Ben .)

 

Image Sources:
(L) From Adam Micklea's "Life and Times of the 1st Half of the 20th Century — Real People: 'Comic' Portrayal of Black Kids" (1907)
(originally at <home.arkansasusa.com/amicklea/people.htm>)
and (R) Cream of Wheat Original Magazine Art, 1900-1926, originally in the "Chosen Reflections" website

While the examples above are relatively innocent, the two below typify crude sexual humor references to Rastus and Liza. It is evident what image of Rastus and Liza — and by extension all blacks? — is conveyed by such humor, and equally why such references are now controversial.

Rastus and Liza on Their Honeymoon

Rastus and Liza are on their honeymoon. Liza is lying on the bed waiting.

"Liza honey, is you ready for me?" asks Rastus.
"Yes Rastus, honey, I'm ready."
The nob of a huge black member appears around the door.
"Is you scared Liza?"
"No Rastus, I ain't scared"
Six inches of cock comes round the door.
"Is you scared now Liza?"
"No Rastus, I ain't scared."
He pushes twelve inches of throbbing black meat round the door.
"Is you scared and trembling now Liza?"
"No Rastus I ain't scared, I'm just here a-waitin' for you."
"Ok then Liza, ah's gonna come up de stairs now . . . "

Rastus and the Train

Liza sees Rastus walkin' across a railroad trestle.
She sez, "Rastus, you best git off there b'fore a train comes and sucks you off!"

Rastus replies: "Cum 'on, train!"



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Last Updated 27 April 2010