Deconstructing Aunt Jemima

Her broad, toothy smile, curvaceous figure, and slave’s telltale ensemble seem easily recognizable, as part of American history, but Aunt Jemima was merely a myth based on stereotypes and never an actual, living person. The image hawking pancake and baking mix for several decades was nothing more than a combination of stories, songs, and female forms originally formulated by Chris Rutt and Charles G. Underwood to promote their new self-rising flour mix. Lacking capital, the R. T. Davis Mill Company bought the Aunt Jemima recipe from the two men and further developed its image with the help of a live performer, Nancy Green. The former slave, who appeared at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, both cooked pancakes and regaled her audiences with glorified tales of the beautiful, old south. By the time the fair ended, it was said that she served several thousand pancakes and established herself as the company’s official spokesperson, working at country fairs, food shows and several other venues.

To boost sales, romanticized stories were created about the former slave Aunt Jemima, many including the common theme of how she went from rags-to-riches by selling her own secret pancake recipe from her plantation days to a large company and becoming the first, black, female millionaire in America, but that is strictly fictitious, much like Nancy Green’s embellished tales about the Antebellum south. Aunt Jemima’s brand was very likely named after a character in a minstrel performance and said to originate from a slave song. The early advertising images portraying Aunt Jemima (from an era idealizing women’s fair skin color) featured her as having an extremely dark skin tone, over-sized mouth and lips, and the appearance more like a grotesque caricature than a depiction of an actual woman. Her husband and children, sometimes pictured on the box along side her, were poor-looking, raggedly dressed individuals more likely from a servant class than the successful family of an entrepreneur who just made a million dollars from a pancake mix deal.

Later adaptations of Aunt Jemima softened the severity of the image’s features with at least a bit more humanity, which may have further obscured its slavery origins, but most still retained the clothing and hair scarf commonly worn by female slaves — along with the title of ‘Aunt’ which, at a time, was given to older female slaves in place of their white counterpart’s titles of ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs.’ After Nancy Green, several other women played the part of Aunt Jemima, adding their own personal touch to the brand, including a later one without the hair cover, but but all still maintained the wholesome, helpful, servant image that Quaker Oats wanted to continue portraying their product. None seemed to have made a fortune or become independently wealthy from the job. Nancy Green was noted to have worked as a domestic until the time of her death at 89, when she was killed by a car and subsequently buried in an unknown, unmarked grave. When later asked if they could help pay for Ms. Green’s headstone, a representative for Quaker Oats was said to have remarked that Aunt Jemima and Nancy Green were not the same, as Aunt Jemima was only a character.

Perhaps American’s desire to purchase pancake mix with a smiling, agreeable, female slave on it reveals a wish to reconcile romanticized ideals of the pre-Civil War south, with the actual history of beatings, starvation, degradation, and rapes, all parts of the actual institution of American slavery. The highly idealized Mammy persona imposed upon black women for the decades following slavery contained a curious idea of a non-threatening, loyal companion, happily helping white women, in particular, with domestic chores such as cooking. In a perverse way, some might have found this image comforting, in part, because it failed to challenge white America’s ideals concerning race. Like a lot of folklore, only a grain of truth exists within a kernel of myth, and the time to finally separate the two requires that we let the Aunt Jemima character become part of our collective past.

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