Aunt Jemima

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Trademark, stereotype, cultural icon to many whites, and racist caricature to many African Americans. For Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood, Aunt Jemima was the perfect symbol for their experiment with the first packaged pancake mix. These white entrepreneurs attended a vaudeville show in 1889, featuring black-faced comedians in a New Orleans-style cakewalk tune entitled “Aunt Jemima.” Emblazoned on the posters announcing the act grinned the familiar image of mammy. Rutt appropriated the name and image, for who could better sell processed foods to American housewives than mammy, ready to save them from kitchen drudgery? Barbara Christian's Black Women Novelists (1980) analyzes how Jemima kept particular images about white women intact. African American writers used the stereotype subversively, as described by Trudier Harris in From Mammies to Militants (1982).

Jemima, the offshoot of irascible mammy, was sweet, jolly, even-tempered, and polite. Jemima, Hebrew for “dove,” was Job's youngest daughter, symbolizing innocence, gentleness, and peace. But the name belies its meaning. The caricature connotes not naïvé te but stupidity, not peace but docility. Jemima was an obese, darkly pigmented, broad-bosomed, handkerchief-headed, gingham-dressed, elderly servant content in her subjugation.

African American resentment regarding Aunt Jemima stemmed not from a rejection of the maternal or domestic image she presented, but from unabashed attempts to create, with this single image, a monolithic African American woman and market her to the world. By 1900, more than 200,000 Jemima dolls, 150,000 Jemima cookie jars, and numerous memorabilia in the form of black-faced buttons and toothpick holders had been sold.

R. T. Davis brought to life the caricature when he purchased the trademark in 1890. He found a three hundred pound model in the person of Nancy Green, a former slave born in Kentucky, who possessed perfectly even white teeth, a stark contrast to her dark complexion. Green signed a lifetime contract with Aunt Jemima. The highlight of her career was her 1893 appearance at the Chicago World's Fair where her pancake-flipping antics and tales of slavery concretized a negative stereotype of African American women. Ironically, the controversial image transformed her life to one of affluence. Green died a celebrity, lauded as the Pancake Queen.

Anna Robinson promoted Jemima's image from 1933 to 1950, and Edith Wilson, a show personality, transformed her to modern, with a stylish hairdo and pearl earrings. This version adorns the pancake box today, but for many African Americans the light brown skin and updated clothes do little to repair the disfigured image of the past.

Purd Wright, “The Life of Aunt Jemima, The Most Famous Colored Woman in the World,” in Brands, Trademarks and Good Will: The Story of the Quaker Oats Company, ed. Arthur F. Marquette, 1967, pp. 137–158.Nagueyalti Warren, “From Uncle Tom to Cliff Huxtable, Aunt Jemima to Aunt Nell: Images of Blacks in Film and the Television Industry” in Images of Blacks in American Culture, ed. Jessie Carney Smith, 1988, pp. 51–117.M.M. Manning, Slave in a Box: the Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, 1998.

Nagueyalti Warren

Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink — Literature.

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