Home > AUNT JEMIMA: A Stain on Black Women’s History, by Jack L. Daniel

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A Stain on Black Women’s History


“My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH”
-Nina Simone-


On March 7th, many celebrated “National Pancake Day” because it was the day IHOP conducted its national fundraiser for children’s hospitals.  I was tempted to indulge in a home-made 3 stack of pancakes covered in Blackberry syrup yielding over 650 calories and 1800 mg of sodium.  I changed my mind when I got to the supermarket aisle, noticed “Aunt Jemima” smiling on a box of pancake mix, and recalled the derogatory nature of “Auntie.” 

Slave masters used “Auntie” to refer to their older, doxy, docile, sexless, non-threatening females.  Some “Aunties” served as “Mammies,” i.e., ingratiating, humble servants who would go to any length to protect “Ole Massa,” “Missy,” and her children.   As Malcolm X might state, Mammies “loved their masters more than they loved themselves.”   

“From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks -- in this case, black women -- were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laughter, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.  …She had great love for her white "family," but often treated her own family with disdain…”   http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mammies/  (For a full discussion of Mammy, see Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders.) 

After slavery, as early as 1875, money grubbers used grotesque mammy images to sell Baking Powder, Lux Soap, Aunt Dinah Molasses, and other products.  Regarding the early racist roots of Aunt Jemima, consider the following advertisements. 

In one instance, “Aunt Jemima” is featured saying, “Happifyin’ Aunt Jemima Pancakes sho’ sets folks singin’!”  Another features “Aunt Jemima” saying to a White male youth, “I’s in Town Honey!  Time fo’ dee-licious Aunt Jemima’s made with my secret recipe ready-mixed fo’ you.” 

A cartoon is entitled, “Aunt Jemima helps mother win praise for good old-time down-south eatin’!”  A White male visits the home of a White couple and he wants some good southern cooking.  Aunt Jemima advises the wife, “Don’t you fret honey child.  Just give de’ Cunnel some of my pancakes.  He’ll think he’s still down south.”

Hollywood nourished the mammy stereotype with Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” and Louise Beavers in “Imitation of life.”  During the early 1950s, television pitched in with Ethel Waters in the role of “Beulah” and, in the 1980s, served up Nell Carter in “Gimme a Break.” 

More recently, we received Viola Davis in “The Help.”  Although “The Help” was based on a story told from the perspectives of some Black maids, Viola Davis revealed that she had serious problems with the film.  For example, “Davis said she felt the maids were presented as pious, saintly figures, making them more palatable to a mainstream audience.  …The anger, the vitriol, and the hatred that they would have towards these white women would have been vocalized. You didn’t see none of that! You saw Minny putting the s**t in the pie  …but that was comedic in nature so it’s an easier pill to swallow.”      http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/movies/the-help-star-viola-davis-reveals-the-big-problem-she-had-with-the-film/news-story/c4493c1826bbe71368d03047d073f3c2  

After 100 years of the using the derogatory “Aunt Jemima” image, Quaker Oats decided to evolve it by removing the red headband, slimming her down a bit, adding pearls, and providing a lace collar.  Nevertheless, the “Aunt Jemima” image continues the long history of a racism that helps, in this instance, PepsiCo Inc. obtain net annual revenues in excess of $43 billion, thereby making it one of the largest food and beverage companies in the world!   

Just as detestable is the fact that the “Aunt Jemima” image is so readily accepted, i.e., people purchase “Aunt Jemima” pancakes mix without thinking about all that “Auntie” represents.  By contrast, consider what would transpire if it was reported that a new pancake mix named either “Aunt Melania Pancakes” or “Aunt Hillary Pancakes” was about to be put on the market.  The logo would be that of a White woman dressed exactly like the current “Aunt Jemima.”  Many people would believe the foregoing was either fake news, some sort of political satire, a crude joke, or in some other ways offensive.  No one would believe they were about to have available some “Slovenian or Suburban Chicago Comfort Food.”  Yet, without reflecting on the racism that “Aunt Jemima” represents, folks readily purchase the product bearing her image.     

Parenthetically, during these days of “alternative universes” created by those who distort facts to suit their purposes, it is worth noting that “Jemima” is of Hebrew origin and the meaning is "dove.” In the Bible, Jemima is the oldest of Job’s three daughters and they were described as the most beautiful women in the land. 

               For those who believe that a “rag” tied around their heads was the act of “ignorant” slaves, please understand that it was more likely an African cultural continuity, that “…Head wrapping is literally a way that Africans for centuries have been able to non-verbally communicate their place in life. The head wrap of a woman walking down the street will tell you if she’s a widow, a grandmother, or if she’s a married young woman.  …On the plantation, the head wrap …functioned as a uniform of rebellion signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.” http://blog.africaimports.com/wordpress/2015/02/the-cultural-significance-of-the-african-headwrap/ 

               “Aunt Jemima” pancakes mix began in 1889.  As with offensive logos such as the “Atlanta Braves,” “Cleveland Indians,” “Washington Redskins,” “Eskimo Pies,” “Land O Lakes Butter,” “Cream of Wheat,” and “Uncle Ben’s Rice,” it is long past the time for “Aunt Jemima” to go!  Women’s history month is a great time to aggressively make this case to PepsiCo Inc.  IHOP could lead by making it known that it does not use PepsiCo Inc. products.  Such a rebellion could also serve as an additional stimulus for addressing all other aspects of women’s experiences involving a loss of self-definition.


Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor

March 9, 2017



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