This week Quaker Oats announced they will be doing away with Aunt Jemima as the face and name of their pancake brand. Aunt Jemima is a fictional character used by the company’s founders to appeal to and comfort White Americans, who longed for the days of the Antebellum South, as a means to sell their pancake mix. The character was based off a song and character from a minstrel show. The song “Old Aunt Jemima” was written by African American comedian, songwriter, and minstrel show performer Billy Kersands. In 1889, Chris Pratt and Charles Underwood got the idea to use Aunt Jemima for their pancake mix after seeing the character in a minstrel show. Nancy Green, a freed slave, became a real live face for the brand. She would make appearances where she “dressed as Aunt Jemima, sang songs, cooked pancakes, and told romanticized stories about the Old South — a happy place for blacks and whites alike, now accessible only by nostalgia, or buying Aunt Jemima pancake recipe.”
Aunt Jemima is a mammy figure. The mammy archetype is a Black woman who lived in the plantation house happily caring for the White household as a cook, caretaker, seamstress, and personal assistant. Hattie McDaniel’s role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind is the perfect embodiment of this role. The Mammy figure was comforting, subservient, and made White people feel good about themselves. Even today, the archetype still exists and pops up in characters and spokeswomen that portray a Black woman, often overweight and sassy, who gives comfort and advice, typically with a White audience in mind. White America has an obsession with the mammy character whether it’s figurines, advertisements, dolls, trading cards, cookie jars, or salt and pepper shakers, and outside the White imagination, she is, and never has been, a positive character.
The mammy archetype was used to advertise products including soap and shoe polish.
Even now, in the Black community, calling someone an “Aunt Jemima” or “mammy” is never a compliment. It’s calling a Black woman a “sellout,” the female equivalent of the male “Uncle Tom,” someone who goes out of their way to appease or comfort Whites, or its a dig at physical appearance, meaning the woman is overweight, unfashionable, undesirable, and always dark skinned.
There are those who believe the Aunt Jemima image should not go. This sentiment can be explained simply by racial prejudice. Many White Americans are not ready to let go of the racial hierarchy they subscribe to and need in order to exist comfortably in America. Some Black Americans, however, have complicated feelings about the erasure of Aunt Jemima from history. Some of us feel that removing the image is grandstanding that will not bring about any real change. Others have sentimental feelings towards the character despite her racist origins, that comes from subverting the original intent, or changing the narrative, of the character. She can be seen as a Black icon that represents the women in our families that we love as nurturers like our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. The Chicago historian, Sherry Williams, “worries that removing the Aunt Jemima image could remove [Nancy] Green’s legacy — and he legacies of many Black women who worked as caretakers and cooks for both white families and their own.” Williams also found an obituary that “claimed it was Green who originally came up with the pancake recipe that would go on to be sold as the Aunt Jemima mix.”
I believe the fact that we are comfortable with these images is the problem. I call them subjugative. Subjugative imagery was never created with an innocent intention, nor has it been kept around for that reason. It’s insensitive at best, but I think there’s a much darker reason as to why these images have been kept around, and there must be a zero-tolerance policy. If these images are to be preserved at all, it should be at museums, learning institutions, or places that serve to educate about the history of America. The history will not be erased by removing these images from the present day into the annals of history where they belong.
The mammy stereotype is not the only racist American imagery. Since there was first contact between Africans and Europeans, there have been racist images and stereotypes that dehumanized people of African descent. These images are rooted in a belief in White superiority and the “othering” and mocking of Black people. These images were never harmless. Aunt Jemima was never harmless. These images serve the purpose of reinforcing White supremacy and have a subconscious effect on the psyche of those who absorb them, and this is not limited to racist advertising logos.
These images have no place in 2020. This also applies to statues, buildings, and namesakes that honor racists. The most problematic symbol is the Confederate flag of the Southern United States. These things don’t honor history, they give those who have benefited from the racist history of America, reassurance that things haven’t really changed and the opportunity to hold on to the nation’s problematic past. Furthermore, American history includes people of African descent. In fact, economically, societally, and foundationally, America was built on the backs of Black Americans. The people who built America should be honored in ways that do not involve caricatures.
Removing all racist symbols and imagery will be difficult because the nation is fundamentally racist. However, there’s hope because whether by force or government decree, racist statues are coming down across the US and UK, and have been following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. These images are not innocuous and need to come down if there is ever going to be an attempt at genuine racial healing.