The Liberation of Aunt Jemima
Inspired by art that no artist would claim
Liberation Of Aunt Jemima
I came across this image today and was intrigued by the title. “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” and decided to blog about it. It’s been a while kiddies, I hope that you haven’t forgotten about your friendly neighborhood pot stirrer! In my moment of mental brevity, I studied this image and came to a startling assumption. Aunt Jemima, whoever she was caricatured after, was probably never paid royalties! Based on the history of Black Americans in this country especially, during the Slave era, blacks were paid menially or not at all.
Allegedly, this flour laden treat was mixed together first in 1889, 25 years or so after the civil war and the “on paper” end of Slavery, I’m sure there were poorly carried out negotiations for that oh so secret recipe. Credit for its embezzled goodness is given to Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood of the Pearl Milling Company and if we all know Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, we know that it was stolen and claimed to be their own.
If that’s not the case, Aunt Jemima, the name, the product and the imagery has been a clever marketing icon that’s lasted for over a century!
We may ask why would the Pearl Milling Company do that, use a Black woman to market their product? This country was still full of hatred and disdain for these newly freed Africans. Mockery and cruelty was publicly accepted and perpetuated through stage shows and later radio and television; could the interests of turning the “suffering” of Blacks into tasteless entertainment be conceived as a fool-proof marketing tool? Could it be that way back when, they knew that marketing Black women was going to be acceptable no matter how negative it was? African women were a big draw at slave auctions, attracting 1000’s from all over to pay and vie for “suitable wenches” that would be good around the house and in the masters bedroom. So for this company to use the “mammy archetype” in pre-civil rights America would seem like a recipe for disaster and yet it happened and it worked!
Nancy Green was hired in 1890 as the first Aunt Jemima representative to be on the boxes and on the road at cooking shows. A former slave, Nancy Green probably didn’t have the knowledge or even an idea of what she needed to get compensation for her image and her time. In 1914, the new owners of the pirated recipe, R.T. Davis Milling Company, renamed the company “Aunt Jemima Mills”, which was credited to the success of the company and its minstrel spokeswoman. Green was offered a lifetime contract to adopt the Aunt Jemima moniker and promote the pancake mix.
Although her money was short, she did have some financial freedom, using her income to engage in activism and anti-poverty campaigns. Unfortunately, at the age of 89 years, she was killed after being struck by a car in Chicago. As the first African model hired to promote a national American product and corporate trademark, Nancy Green will forever be remembered and endeared as Aunt Jemima or “Slave in a Box”.
Next up to the auction block is Anna Robinson, our second Auntie J. From this picture it looks like she may have had too many flap jacks…Whoa! Guess I was being a bit insensitive, but she clearly wasn’t a picture of health. As I read up on Ms. Robinson, she was 350 pounds and darker than Nancy Green, which worked out for the marketers and promoters to help them stick with their pancake making mammy. Even today, corporate America hints a silent prerequisite for thick robust Black women to promote products that may not be good for us. Whether it’s fried chicken, inhaling harmful cleaning products or distasteful music videos, these women are used as tools, to fool the fools, into suckling the brand that is being endorsed.
Speaking of suckling, is “mammy” a play on mammary, as in breasts, Black breasts that white children suckled on while the “mammies” watched over the slave masters chil’ren? I wonder if that is where the word originated from.
Here is Edith Wilson, one of the more socially acceptable Aunt Jemima’s. She doesn’t have the appearance of the stereotypical “mammy”. She is of lighter complexion, suitably attractive; she has that classic 20-30’s look. Her career lasted 18 years as the face and voice of Aunt Jemima – first on radio then in advertisements and appearances at pancake breakfasts’. So, back to liberation! Who was she, who was the real “mammy” that gave those white boys the pancake recipe that has endured for 123 years? Was she compensated, if so how? After all of these years has she received her due? I think she has. Yes, the name, Aunt Jemima is one of the most degrading names from the Slave and Minstrel Era that has endured up to this day, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics and Asians, consume this product without thought and without recognizing the history behind the offensive, delicious goodness in every flapjack we eat.
It’s funny how Blacks, at our own expense, motivate profitable ideas to others through our self-slander and misery.
The Old Aunt Jemima was a popular song composed by an African comedian, songwriter and minstrel show performer, a Black man named Billy Kersands (c. 1842–1915) The Old Aunt Jemima song was not only the inspiration for Aunt Jemima pancakes, it also inspired several characters in film, television and on radio. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Aunt_Jemima)
I for one take guilty pleasure in eating AJ pancakes, I do it to honor the sacrifice, to honor the history of the product and they taste so much better than Bisquick or Eggo so, yes I’m guilty.
There is a subtext lurking beneath the Aunt Jemima advertisements. She embodied an early twentieth century idealized domesticity that was inspired by old southern hospitality. There were others that capitalized on this theme such as: Uncle Ben’s Rice and Cream of Wheat’s Rastus. The backdrop to the trademark image of Aunt Jemima is a romanticized view of antebellum plantation life. The myth surrounding Aunt Jemima’s secret recipe, family life, and plantation life as a happy slave all contribute to the post-civil war idealism of southern life and America’s developing consumer culture. Early advertisements used an Aunt Jemima paper doll family as an advertising gimmick to buy the product. Aunt Jemima is represented with her husband Rastus, whose name was later changed to Uncle Mose to avoid confusion with the Cream of Wheat character, and their four children: Abraham Lincoln, Dilsie, Zeb and Dinah. The doll family was dressed in tattered clothing and barefoot with the possibility to see them transform from rags to riches by buying another box with civilized clothing cut-outs.” – Credit goes to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aunt_Jemima)
Idealism aside and taste buds appeased, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is an interesting piece of artwork and unfortunately I was unable find the artist to give credit or grievance to. Finance & Freedom: would have been absolute liberation for a woman of that era, but I’m sure the real Aunt Jemima never experienced either.
“In recent years, Aunt Jemima has been given a makeover: her skin is lighter and the handkerchief has been removed from her head. She now has the appearance of an attractive maid — not a Jim Crow era mammy.” (http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mammies/)
At least she’s not a mammy, or a slave in a box, she’s been upgraded to a maid…Hope that came with a pay increase?
Free Aunt Jemima!
Aunt Jemima Pancakes