In 1889, Chris Rutt started using the name “Aunt Jemima” to market his pancake flour after he heard the song “Old Aunt Jemima” in a minstrel show. The shows usually featured white actors in blackface, but African American comedian Billy Kersands wrote and performed “Old Aunt Jemima.”
After Rutt sold his company, the new owners hired Nancy Green, a former slave, in 1893 to pose as Aunt Jemima and sell the product. A number of women played Aunt Jemima, a role that evoked the stereotype of a “black mammy,” or a happy slave who devoted her life to a white family.
Quaker Oats updated the brand’s image in 1989 for its 100th birthday. Aunt Jemima lost her headscarf and received pearl earrings but kept her name. At the time, a spokesperson for Quaker Oats called the brand recognition “an invaluable asset.” Now that asset has become a liability.
The social movement against racism, sparked by the death of George Floyd and stoked by other police killings of African Americans, has subjected longstanding monuments, memorials, and even brand identities to renewed scrutiny. On June 15, African American singer Kirby posted a TikTok video entitled “How to make a non-racist breakfast.” In the video, she poured a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix into a sink. Within days, Quaker Oats announced the beginning of the end the brand.
“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” said Kristin Kroepfl of Quaker Foods North America. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”
Other brands that rely on African American or other ethnic minority imagery followed suit: Uncle Ben’s rice, Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup, Cream of Wheat porridge, and Eskimo Pie ice cream treats all said they planned to review their own branding.
The proposed changes met some resistance from people associated with the women who once played the role of Aunt Jemima. Sherry Williams is president of the historical society of Bronzeville, the Chicago neighborhood where Green lived. She told WBEZ-FM she wished Quaker Oats would celebrate the contributions of women like Green rather than erasing them.
Anna Short Harrington and Lillian Richard took on the role of Aunt Jemima in the years after Green’s death in 1923.
“This is an injustice for me and my family,” Harrington’s great-grandson, Larnell Evans, told Patch. “This is part of my history,” Vera Harris, a relative of Lillian Richard, echoed those concerns.
“I wish we would take a breath and not just get rid of everything, because good or bad, it is our history,” Harris told KTVT-TV.
Though some people have no discomfort with the brands or even feel nostalgia for them, Vincent Bacote, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, called the changes a step in the right direction.
“There have been people who have always been uncomfortable with the branding of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s because they are beloved African American figures who are subservient,” said Bacote, who is African American. “Depending upon how you grew up and where you grew up, it can seem to reinforce a certain notion of joyful subservience of minorities.” A pancake syrup’s branding might seem like a little thing, but what if it contributes to the idea that black people belong in service roles to whites? Bacote said brands should ask themselves, “Are [we] reinforcing the idea that that’s the kind of jobs those people should be in?”
He suggested Christians use conversations on race and marketing as an opportunity to learn. Advertising images have meaning, and Christians—who have often critiqued sexualization in marketing—ought to think carefully about race in advertising, too: “We are in a time of great potential for there to be a broad, consistent Christian witness that addresses questions of race and justice.”