Retiring Aunt Jemima

“I can’t breathe” these haunting words of George Floyd have set off a chain of events in the reckoning of race relations in America. One of these events is today’s announcement that Quaker Oats is replacing the Jemima brand with a new name and image in order “to make progress toward racial equality.”

According to CNN, there have been repeated calls for Aunt Jemima to change its logo. In a 2015 opinion piece published in The New York Times, Cornell University professor Riché Richardson said the logo is “very much linked to Southern racism.” Aunt Jemima’s character was based on the common stereotype of the mammy archetype, a character in minstrel shows in the late 1800s. Her skin is dark and dewy, with a pearly white smile. She wears a scarf over her head and a polka dot dress with a white collar, similar to the common attire and physical features of “mammy” characters throughout history. Mammy was “a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own.” 

The whole Aunt Jemima idea was inspired by a song named, “Aunt Jemima” performed by a Blackface performer who was wearing an apron and bandana. The performance was seen at a minstrel show by newspaper man, name of Chris Rutt who along with his partner Charles Underwood developed an idea to package self-rising pancake flour after buying the Pearl Milling Company.  However, unable to make the project work, so they eventually sold the self-rising pancake formula to R.T. Milling Company soon afterward.

It was the R.T. Davis Milling Company who hired former slave Nancy Green as a spokesperson for the Aunt Jemima pancake mix in 1890. She became the advertising world’s first living trademark and spokes-model. She signed over the life rights of her image to The Davis Milling Company. She became known as Green was known as the Pancake Queen and traveled all over the United States, telling stories with her warm personality while exhibiting pancakes at trade-shows.  Her booth became so popular that policemen were assigned to keep her safe and to control the crowds. She played the Jemima character from 1890 until her death on August 30, 1923.

Nancy Green’s advertising contract gave her financial stability.  In her spare time, she was an activist and was outspoken against poverty. Now, the very thing which had made her famous is being retired. Times are changing. Kudos to Quaker Oats is acknowledging the Jemima brand’s racist past. If only there were more companies willing to fight racism instead of distancing themselves from it or merely talking about it. Be accountable. Take action.

Posted for June 2020 Writing Prompts – If only there were more.

Sources: CNN; Wikipedia; The Westside Gazette; Harvard Business Review

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