The Crucible

Jemima and American Perceptions of Black Women

By Cecilia Stelzer

Aunt Jemima is one of the most recognizable brands in America. The products have been sold for over 120 years, and the image of “Aunt Jemima” as a wholesome, caring, motherly figure is well known. This, to most, seems like a point of pride, and the company’s website even describes their brand as having a “rich history.” The image that we see as the face of Aunt Jemima has actually been altered from one that was blatantly stereotypical and racist.

The original Aunt Jemima was developed by the first creators of the product, after seeing a minstrel show in which a song called “Aunt Jemima” was sung by a performer wearing a handkerchief and covered in blackface. From that, they developed their brand’s spokesperson, a loving, obese, black woman, that wanted nothing more than to cook for her white “family.” She was the ideal black woman, which caused her brand to become popular quickly. The company hired Nancy Green, a former slave, to play the part of “Aunt Jemima.” She traveled America, visiting fairs and other events, cooking pancakes for the visitors, most of whom were white. She was meant to act like a wholesome caretaker, happy in her lower position. Aunt Jemima was one of a large group of these unrealistic characters, marketed towards the white upper-class, called “mammies.”

The mammy archetype was common in entertainment and marketing towards the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It was usually the image of an overweight black woman who took care of a white family. She was commonly a slave or, after the abolition of slavery, a servant. Despite her poverty and lower status, she was shown as loving her position and adoring the white family she cared after. Most likely, mammies were seen as a comfort to the repressive upper-class, because it allowed them to dismiss the complaints of the struggling black people. They instead lived in a fantasy world in which the slaves and servants around them were more than content to continue being enslaved and abused. “She was… a figment of a white imagination, a nostalgic yearning for a reality that never had been.” The products that utilized the mammy ideal were more successful and desirable. Hence, why Aunt Jemima was an instant hit.

The mammy image that caused the brand’s success, despite its initial popularity, later became the cause of their problems. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Americans began to see how harmful it was to present such a stereotypical image. The owner of the Aunt Jemima products, the Quaker Oats company, received so many complaints, that they began to alter her image. First, they removed the handkerchief from her head and replaced her with a thinner and younger girl. A few decades later, they gave her a lace collar and pearl earrings. As America became more and more conscious of racism, so did the Quaker Oats company. You can actually see her image change over time to a progressively less stereotypical one.

They kept her personality the same of course, and she still is meant to fill a wholesome, motherly role. Still, she is just an echo of the past. There are still traces of where she came from, but overall she is an image from today. Americans petitioned for change and because of their efforts, Aunt Jemima was modernized to a face that reflects our time.

This entry was published on April 27, 2011 at 9:52 am. It’s filed under Features and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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