Aunt Jemima: Is the issue debatable or not?

Several weeks ago, drama and debate broke loose online and in the media. The topic of concern? Aunt Jemima maple syrup. Well, to be more precise, the image and brand of Aunt Jemima is the central focus of debate. The issues erupted throughout the country in connection with Black Lives Matter and Antifa riots.

Since then, I’ve learned much about the history of the Aunt Jemima image and brand. As is typical with most controversial topics, the issues are highly debatable although some people claim they are not. In this post, I will list several of the main schools of thought I encountered while researching the topic. At the end of the article, I will share my personal opinions. As always, The Hot Mess Press, encourages your interaction. Feel free to visit our Facebook page to comment on this post.

Aunt Jemima debut occurred in 1889

While I came across several versions of the story as to when, how and why the Aunt Jemima brand came to be, many sources, such as this article, provide information similar to that which is included in the following list:

  • A man named Chris Rutt created the Aunt Jemima brand name after hearing a minstrel show performer sing a song called, “Old Aunt Jemima.”
  • Rutt and his business partner, Charles Underwood, designed the first logo associated with the brand name as a marketing tool to sell ready-made pancake mix.
  • The African American Registry confirms that the men sold their mix to the R.T. Davis company, who then hired a former slave woman named Nancy Green to act as a living trademark of the product.
  • Green would showcase the pancake mix at fairs, grocery stores and other special events.

Nancy Green suffered sudden, unexpected death

Sadly, Ms. Green suffered fatal injuries as a pedestrian on a sidewalk in 1923. A vehicle collided with a truck. It flipped over and struck her where she was standing. Following Green’s tragic death, numerous other women stepped into her role as Aunt Jemima, under the employ of Quaker Oats company, who had purchased the brand.

Remove the brand or the keep brand: That is the question

Aunt Jemima is based on a “Mammy” figure, which stereotypes black women working as freed slaves during and after the Civil War. One problem is that it is not at all an accurate depiction as most black women working for wealthy, white families were not only NOT plump as the Aunt Jemima brand image suggests but were starkly thin because they did not receive much food during their employ.

There may have been dark reasons for choosing a plump woman as the feature character. Many white men took advantage of and abused black women working in their households in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States. Many researchers believe the plump black woman image was intentional to draw attention away from white men’s crimes by portraying maids and housekeepers as cartoon-ish or unattractive.

Films, stories and commercials perpetuated the Aunt Jemima image as though it were a factual caricature of black women who were devoted caretakers are white families. The images showed the same women being harsh, mean, and often violent toward their own families. This, too, is far from what the reality was at the time. Those who support removing Aunt Jemima as a brand and image see it is an insult that promotes derogatory views of former slaves and misrepresents U.S. history.

Some say the Aunt Jemima image should stay

A great grandson of Anna Harrington (another woman who worked in the role of Aunt Jemima after Nancy Green died) says it dishonors his great grandmother to remove the image. Mr. Larnell Evans, Sr. has adamantly stated that it is a grave injustice to consider removing the Aunt Jemima brand name and image because of its connection to a racist U.S. history. Evans, Sr. says that companies have greatly profited from his great grandmother’s history as a former slave.

He further states that to remove the brand and image is to sweep his family’s history and that of all black slaves under the rug as though it never happened. He is proud of his great grandmother and wants the world to know about her work and legacy. He does not want the Aunt Jemima brand or image erased because, he says, future generations will never know about his family’s history if the image or brand no longer exists. You can read more about his efforts to preserve the brand and image, here.

Personal conclusions:

Current events in our nation are full of unrest, division among the people and violence. It is a tragic, sad time in the United States. When I first researched Aunt Jemima more than 20 years ago, I thought the image and brand were degrading to black women. However, I had read that Nancy Green and Anna Harrington chose to promote the image and had earned millions of dollars doing so.

I have since learned that this untrue. Harrington’s family filed a lawsuit against Quaker Oats for royalties but the case was thrown out of court. As former slaves trying to survive in a society filled with bigotry and prejudice, these women likely accepted employment in spite of the fact that the brand they were paid to market was insulting to them. In other words, just because they did it doesn’t mean they liked it or approved of it. They were women trying to survive. Having said that, I  also see Mr. Evans’ point. No matter how terrible the history behind the Aunt Jemima image may be, it is his great grandmother’s legacy, and he does not want it to be struck from the record.

What’s the solution?

Perhaps, there is a compromise available that would satisfy those who want to keep the Aunt Jemima image and those who want it removed. Maybe it can be placed in the Smithsonian Institution or U.S. history museum. If so, a realistic description could be given, stating that the stereotype is fictional and is insulting to former slaves, then telling of events that unfolded that led to its removal from store shelves and commercials, etc.

This way, Evans, Sr. would get his way because future generations could still learn about his great grandmother and other black women who survived the horrific atrocities of slavery in America. The image would no longer be generating profit for Quaker Oats or other companies, so those who oppose it could take comfort in knowing it has been removed from the marketplace.

What are your thoughts on the topic?

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