Since her “retirement” was announced two days before Juneteenth — in the middle of a deeply American season of racial reassessment and social change — the loss of Aunt Jemima caused a typically American furor. The comments on social media ranged from outright rage that political correctness had invaded the already socially distant grocery store to remarks suggesting that liberals had shot themselves in the foot by diminishing the diversity of positive mascots on store shelves.
The latter sentiment is what cut me the deepest — especially when expressed by those who said how their perception of Black people had been positively shaped by seeing Aunt Jemima’s visage. As pleasant and formative an experience as the memory of this particular brand mascot might be for some white people, it’s also the root of the problem.
The character of Aunt Jemima is an invitation to white people to indulge in a fantasy of enslaved people — and by extension, all of Black America — as submissive, self-effacing, loyal, pacified and pacifying. It positions Black people as boxed in, prepackaged and ready to satisfy; it’s the problem of all consumption, only laced with racial overtones.
Most of those bemoaning the loss of “Auntie” today wouldn’t have discovered her the way that earlier generations did, as cut-out dolls from the box of pancake mix. Nancy Green, the real Kentucky woman born into enslavement in 1834 who became the model for the original Aunt Jemima on the box, first had her appearance corrupted for the branding and then transformed into an antebellum toy for white children. Her heartbreakingly sincere appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 assuaged any remnants of post-bellum rage at Black people by telling stories and cooking up the original Aunt Jemima pancake mix — a little wheat, a little corn and a lot of nostalgia for something that never was.
Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and “Rastus,” the Cream of Wheat man, were actually meant to be stand-ins for what white people viewed as a generation of formerly enslaved Black cooks now lost to them. As mascots, they were designed to be perceived by those white people as nothing more — and to have wanted to be nothing more — than loyal servants, in a frightening time of growing Black equality and empowerment.
In 1923, the year Nancy Green died in a car accident while working as a housekeeper, a congressman from North Carolina proposed building a national Mammy monument. It was meant to celebrate the supposedly faithful Negroes of the old days — a love note to the false perception that domestic servants were family with a tan, rather then men, women and children who were enslaved, subjected to several corporal punishment (including death) for disobedience or perceived disobedience and objects of sexual violence by their white owners. It was also meant to be a warning to those Black people pursuing equality: the idea that their chains could always be replaced.
(Nancy Green, of course, was replaced by Anna Harrington.)
In the same way, the monuments on the boxes sent their own messages about what enslavement “really” meant, Rastus — pictured standing stiffly with his pot cleaned and his tray brimming with Cream of Wheat in the other hand, grinning as Thanksgiving turkeys strutted by — was meant to be proof to white shoppers that, much like faithful old Rastus, their product would not take from you but be ever at your service, ready to give without limit, and never give into the temptations of the market to defraud the buyer.
Every part of America’s consumer culture in the Klan-riddled days of the early 20th century — from sheet music to soap to food to comics — was sold based on the ideas of Black bodies’ subservience, filthiness, entertainment or sites of abuse.
That didn’t change just because the brands tweaked the mascots over the years.
Yes, the three retirees — Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and, hopefully, Rastus — owe their rest to corporate attempts to get in on a furious fad of social distancing from America’s racist past. Yes, they are symbolic gestures that many have wanted for a long time. They are, however, still more than skin-deep. These images on consumer products in the 21st century served as texts of marginalization and otherness for countless white homes where only these three “Blacks” would ever be allowed at the table.
No matter how much self-respect, political advancement and style we had off the shelf, there was always a reminder of our past — and a willingness, by some, to take us back there.
The continuation of myths about enslaved Black domestics aren’t just about white folks and their perceptions and expectations of Black people; they hurt African Americans who still search for a clear path to make peace with the world of our ancestors. These images — born of movies like “Gone With the Wind” and the stereotypes that sit on the shelves — have stifled our own nuanced understanding of the role cooks and domestics played on plantations, as well as the fears and difficulties they faced.
They were not sycophants who shucked and jived for the slaveholders; they were bearers of culinary and domestic knowledge, which allowed them and many others to seek their freedom, survive seasons of want and perpetuate elements of African cuisine by goading slaveholders into not only eating our food but using our words. By doing so, they kept a part of our culture alive in plain sight, a method of resistance that was, in the words of the late scholar William D. Piersen, “a resistance that was too civilized to notice.”
The terrifying masks of Black complicity and duplicity were not something our ancestors who worked in the kitchens and homes asked for, and yet some of us still have problems seeing behind them because it served white people to perpetuate a myth of such ancestors as compliant, rather than admit their own gullibility or culpability.
In my own work as a historic interpreter, I often choose to demonstrate — in character, as a scholar of the time — the ways our ancestors cooked for themselves and for slaveholders. On occasion, I am met with severe resistance for doing the same work as my white colleagues because my craft is perceived, at best, as being a green light for racist nostalgia and, at worst, a personal dedication to undermining Black pride. It is neither: I am honoring and preserving a key part of our people’s system of survival: our food.
To many, Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben are just friendly faces being taken off their boxes for being from a “different time.” Yet to many African Americans, they are deliberate stumbling blocks to understanding our ancestors’ humanity and our own, ghosts from a place that never was — as contrived and unreal as the brown goo they slap her face on and call “syrup” — where the slaves were happy and our pain had no consequence.