The smiling, submissive visage of Aunt Jemima, a 130-year-old pancake and syrup staple, has long been scrutinized for its controversial depiction of the plump and devoted “Black mammy” minstrel stereotype in books and academic dissertations. While Quaker Oats dropped Jemima’s head-wrap in favor of delicate pearls in 1989 (a century after the brand’s founding), the mascot’s roots in pre-Emancipation nostalgia largely remained intact.
But after the Black Lives Matter movement prominently resurfaced in the mainstream following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota, PepsiCo (Quaker Oats’ parent company) is grappling with the fact that there’s no graceful way to update Aunt Jemima’s leading lady without scrapping her from the packaging of the product altogether.
But relatives of two of the five former Aunt Jemima actresses are displeased with the “politically correct” rebranding, seeing the decision instead as an affront to justice and family legacy.
“I understand what Quaker Oats is doing because I’m Black and I don’t want a negative image promoted,” Vera Harris, whose great aunt Lillian Richard portrayed Aunt Jemima for 23 years, told NBC News. “However, I just don’t want her legacy lost, because if her legacy is swept under the rug and washed away, it’s as if she never was a person.”
Harris mentioned that her great aunt was contracted by Quaker Oats in 1925 at a time when there weren’t many jobs “especially for Black women” outside of domestic work (for non-Black families).
“She took the job to make an honest living to support herself, touring around at fairs, cooking demonstrations and events,” Harris added in the NBC News interview.
But while Harris is concerned about erasure (though signs heading into her great aunt’s hometown of Hawkins, Texas honor the actress by name), others are praising the decision to finally get rid of these brand icons that glorify the “happy antebellum slave” trope.
The first Aunt Jemima, Nancy Green, was born a slave in Montgomery County, Ky. Though she made history by becoming one of the advertising world’s first Black corporate trademark models, the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan includes Green’s image in a traveling “Hateful Things” exhibit.
Still, Larnell Evans Sr., the great-grandson of Anna Harrington Short (another Black woman who donned Aunt Jemima’s garb for over two decades), told NBC News he thinks the rebranding is a “slap in the face” and “ludicrous.”
“Twenty-five years of this lady’s life is just going to go away,” Evans continued in the interview, proclaiming that “injustice is being done.” Evans’ family sued Quaker Oats in 2014 for $2 billion in compensation and a share of future revenue, contending that they hadn’t been properly paid marketing royalties. The case was dismissed in 2015.
Like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Cream of Wheat and Mrs. Buttersworth’s parent companies all pledged earlier this month avowing to reimagine their brand identities and reevaluate their packaging. Earlier this week, Dreyer’s Ice Cream announced that it is dropping the Eskimo Pie moniker, and Land O’Lakes opted to quietly remove their logo earlier this year before these brand identities were put under a microscope.
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