Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Why I NEVER Bought Aunt Jemima Products

Aunt Jemima (then)
In today's high tension environment, I thought it would be important to explain something. I'm re-posting an article I published a few years ago regarding Aunt Jemima. Upon hearing that the Aunt Jemima Brand is now retiring, all I can say is, IT'S ABOUT TIME!

According to the New York Star Tribune, "Quaker Oats is retiring the 131-year-old Aunt Jemima brand, saying the company recognizes the character's origins are "based on a racial stereotype.

Just hours later, the owner of the Uncle Ben's brand of rice says the brand will 'evolve' in response to concerns about racial stereotyping."

Nearly 100 years after the Civil War, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put our nation on the road to racial reconciliation.  It’s a long road and we’re still on it.

Prior to racial barriers being broken, blacks were relegated to positions of servitude.  Even high achieving blacks in white schools were encouraged by teachers and counselors to seek trades.

Speaking of servitude, let's talk about Aunt Jemima.  When my kids were younger, they loved Aunt Jemima frozen waffles and Aunt Jemima pancake mix.  I grew up eating waffles and pancakes that my mom had made from scratch—which was exactly what I'd done for my kids.  Yet they preferred the pre-made frozen waffles and pancake mix they'd eaten at sleepovers, to what I'd fix at home. They'd also claimed that all the other supermarket brands weren't as good. “We want Aunt Jemima!” they'd demanded, so  I caved. I bought the products, something I thought I would NEVER do. And it was hard to actually put that pancake mix in my shopping cart. I didn't even tell my mother.

Aunt Jemima (now retiring)
Prior to my kids insisting on Aunt Jemima products, I NEVER bought them. And seeing the Aunt Jemima label in a black person’s home used to shock me. Though no ill-feelings existed behind the label, the origins of the Aunt Jemima character are insensitive, or what's today considered politically incorrect.

When I was a growing up, my mother NEVER allowed Aunt Jemima’s broad, smiling face to sit on our pantry shelf.  Why did Mom despise this seemingly  innocuous,  jolly woman?  Well it all goes back to slavery.

Back in slavery days, very young white children called much older slaves aunt and uncle.  Apparently the practice of calling any black person  aunt or uncle, carried over into post slavery times.

My mother grew up in 1930’s South Carolina, and when white salesmen would come to the door and address my feisty grandmother as Auntie (pronounced “Ainie” in the southern vernacular), she’d say, “My mother never gave birth to anything that looked like you!” before slamming the door.

So, Mom NEVER purchased Aunt Jemima because addressing a black woman as aunt or auntie (instead of Miss, Mrs. or ma'am) was a disrespectful practice.  However, she didn't a problem with Uncle Ben, perhaps because he didn’t appear as a buffoonish caricature.  For years Aunt Jemima was portrayed as the stereotypical black mammy of the plantation south. Old Aunt Jemima was a minstrel song written in 1875 and the Aunt Jemima character was a fixture in minstrel shows during the late 19th century.

The idea of this pre-mixed product being represented by a slave woman was inspired by the marketing aspect of bringing back “the good old days” when slaves did all the work. In the book Slave in a Box, Maurice Manning shows how “advertising entrepreneur James Webb Young, aided by celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth, skillfully tapped into nostalgic 1920s perceptions of the South as a culture of white leisure and black labor. Aunt Jemima's ready-mixed products offered middle-class housewives the next best thing to a black servant: a ‘slave in a box’ that conjured up romantic images of not only the food but also the social hierarchy of the plantation South.” (From the Slave in a Box Amazon page).

When I was a kid, my mom said, “If they’d just take that kerchief off her head and call the product Jemima, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”  Aunt Jemima’s appearance has changed throughout the years.  She’s no longer buffoonish looking and doesn’t resemble a mammy.  She’s been slimmed down, her kerchief evolved into a hair band before finally disappearing, and she now sports a 1980s hairdo.  The only thing that hasn’t changed, and will forever prevent my mom from buying any Aunt Jemima product is the “Aunt” in front of her name. 

Most African Americans of later generations don’t know about the derogatory past of Aunt Jemima.  But there are probably plenty  in my mom’s age group that NEVER buy Aunt Jemima because of its hurtful past.

I’ll end things on a lighter note.  I won’t put you on the spot and ask whether or not you buy Aunt Jemima!  But I will ask this instead, do you prefer pancakes from mix or from scratch?

Thanks for visiting!

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