For years, the smiling image of Aunt Jemima — found on pancake mix, syrup bottles, and other breakfast food boxes nationwide — has harbored controversy for its racist history. The icon has undergone slight visual changes over time, but the brand’s name has stuck for more than a century, dating back to 1889.
On June 17, Quaker Oats, the company that produces Aunt Jemima products and a subsidiary of PepsiCo, acknowledged that the brand’s origins are based on a racial stereotype and announced it will work to make packaging and name changes toward the end of 2020.
“As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations,” wrote Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, in a press release. Kroepfl noted that the brand has been updated over the years “to be appropriate and respectful,” but realized that those changes are insufficient.
The nationwide wave of protests against police brutality and racism has prompted many companies, from media corporations to technology platforms, to not only reassess work culture, but reckon with past contributions to or complicity in racial injustice. Acknowledging and weeding out racist symbols in American culture is a project that’s being undertaken on many levels; many are calling for the removal of Confederate statues and the renaming of buildings that honor slave traders or imperialists, and similarly, restaurants and foodstuffs with a problematic history are also edging toward a rebrand.
Since its acquisition of the Aunt Jemima brand in 1926, Quaker Oats has spent decades obscuring the roots of Aunt Jemima, hiring black actresses to portray an innocuous, domestic character who is dedicated to serving delicious pancakes. In modern times, it has explicitly focused its messaging towards nourishment and motherhood, rather than the Aunt Jemima figure herself. The most familiar iteration of Aunt Jemima is from her 1989 contemporary rebrand, in which she was given pearl earrings and a lace collar (visual cues of an elevated class status). Still, nothing was done about her name. “That kind of familiarity and recognition is an invaluable asset,’’ a Quaker Oats spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune in 1989.
Despite this wholesome-sounding message, the Aunt Jemima figure is rooted in Jim Crow-era perceptions of black women, specifically the Southern “mammy” stereotype of a loyal and submissive servant. As Riché Richardson, an associate professor of African American literature at Cornell University, wrote in the New York Times in 2015, the icon is “an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia,” which visually portrayed her “as an asexual, plump black woman wearing a headscarf.” (Her headscarf was turned into a headband in 1968.)
The name “Aunt Jemima” is derived from a minstrel song titled, “Old Aunt Jemima” by Billy Kersands, a popular black comedian in the late 19th century. In her book Black Hunger: Soul Food and America, researcher Doris Witt explored the various pop culture narratives that emerged around Aunt Jemima, which legitimated her as a brand and familiar trope to a white audience that bought into these products. The production and consumption of Aunt Jemima iconography, Witt theorized, was “inextricably linked to the material production and consumption of Aunt Jemima pancake mix in a rapidly expanding commodity system,” one that relied on exploitable labor to be profitable.
It’s also unclear whether the black women who were hired to portray Aunt Jemima over the decades were properly compensated for their work. Descendants of Nancy Green and Anna S. Harrington — women who were selected by owners of the Aunt Jemima brand to develop the character — sued Quaker Oats in 2014 for unpaid royalties and damages, claiming that the women lent their likeness to the brand and even helped develop the pancake mix recipe. (PepsiCo did not find any formal contracts between Harrington, Green, or any other black women who professionally embodied Aunt Jemima, Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2014.)
Caught during a fraught cultural moment, American companies like Quaker Oats are recognizing the need to confront their brands’ histories and evolve them to suit society’s needs. Within hours of Quaker Oats’ announcement, a spokesperson for the rice brand Uncle Ben’s, which is owned by Mars Inc., told the Huffington Post that the company will consider “evolving” Uncle Ben’s visual brand identity and acknowledged its corporate responsibility to “put an end to racial bias and injustices.” Cream of Wheat cereal, a brand that dates back to 1893, also features a smiling black chef as its logo. Critics say these male figures draw from the “Uncle Tom” stereotype popular in the post-Reconstruction period, in which black men are depicted as obedient and subservient to white people and crave their validation.
Ultimately, this is a cultural decision as much as a business one. Despite the longstanding familiarity of Aunt Jemima, Quaker Oats is admitting that the name is reflective of outdated, regressive beliefs of black women. Regardless, why did it take so long for a breakfast food company to concede that its iconography is racist? Perhaps now, Quaker Oats — and similar corporations overseeing brands like Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat — is finally realizing that remaining silent on Aunt Jemima will no longer serve its bottom line, especially after its parent company PepsiCo pledged a $5 million donation to uplift black Americans.
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