Goodbye, Aunt Jemima.
The Quaker Oats Co. decided recently to “retire” her as a marketing image for its pancake mix.
I grew up with Aunt Jemima. That is, we kids in the 1950s ate stacks of scrumptious syrupy pancakes almost every day. Mom would make them from a box showing the face of a grinning plump-faced Negro woman wearing a red kerchief on her head – Aunt Jemima. That was the word used for African-Americans/Blacks in those days – Negroes.
One day, mom took us three brothers on the Fifth Avenue bus to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in downtown St. Cloud. Aunt Jemima was going to be there making pancakes. Oh good, we thought, we get to see somebody famous. We were disappointed. The woman there didn’t look like the Aunt Jemima on the box. Brother Johnny said she was somebody who was paid to just pretend to be the real Jemima.
Back then, we never thought of that pancake woman as an example of racist stereotyping, probably because in all-white St. Cloud we kids did not even know what “racist” or “stereotyping” even meant.
I do recall my parents loved oysters and would buy cans of “Negro Head Oysters.” What a weird creepy name, I used to think. I asked my parents, “Why that name?” They didn’t know but assumed it’s because the man on the can looked like a Negro chef.
The other day, I did some research. In 19th century America, minstrel shows were popular. In those touring plays, white actors would smear their faces with black greasepaint and sing, dance, do skits and act generally ridiculous, like stumbling bumpkins. White audiences would roar with laughter at the antics of such primitive creatures. When a pancake mix maker saw a character named “Aunt Jemima” in a minstrel show circa 1880, he decided to market his mix using an “Aunt Jemima” image – the loyal dedicated Negro cook lovingly attached to her white-family owners.
The first pancake-box image of her is a shockingly grotesque caricature – a blatantly racist illustration of a grinning, huge-mouthed “mammy” with long rows of tiny teeth. Through the decades, the image was periodically changed to be somewhat less offensive until in recent decades Aunt Jemima looked pretty much like a smiling white woman with a very nice tan.
The first “Negro Head Oysters,” I discovered, were first called “N….. Head Oysters,” by the Biloxi, Mississippi, company that canned them. The cans for years depicted the image of a hideous, ferocious-looking, huge red-lipped Negro face about to devour a huge oyster. In 1955, after pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oyster company changed the name to “Negro Head” (oh, what a concession!).
There were in those days many brands of products using the vile name of “N……head” this or that, such as tobacco products.
My research unlocked many half-forgotten recollections from childhood: seeing on lawn statues that included Negro jockeys, Negro children eating watermelon slices, obese Negro mammies; famed white singer Al Jolson singing “Mammy” in blackface; the “Amos and Andy” radio and TV show; endless dumb cartoons in magazines showing Negro cannibals – always with big lips and rings through noses – about to cook white explorers or missionaries in a big pot; Uncle Tom and Mammy salt-and-pepper shakers; and Brazil nuts that were known widely (including by us kids) as “n….. toes.”
Imagine the cumulative effect of that barrage of vicious racist stereotyping in marketed images and how it seeped into the collective subconscious of most of us: Negroes as happy clinging servants, Negroes as bumbling comic jesters; Negroes as grinning banjo-playing ragamuffins; Negroes as grateful creatures dependent on their superior white masters.
Such demeaning images helped create and reinforce systemic racism in which Blacks were – and often still are – viewed and treated as “inferiors.” Thanks to the “Black Lives (Should) Matter” movement, it’s time for Blacks (along with all minorities) and whites to work together to deconstruct that toxic legacy and to forge bonds of mutual outreach, respect, understanding and equality. All of our lives depend upon a difficult but good-faith survivalist journey into a better future.