Muse Reporting on the arts and culture

A farewell to Aunt Jemima

Culture | Companies abandon brands built on racial stereotypes
by Collin Garbarino
Posted 6/23/20, 05:43 pm

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.”

Facebook/Luis Javier Ruiz Facebook/Luis Javier Ruiz Luis Ruiz

Transformed

They heard the gunshots echo across the dance floor and ran for their lives.

Angel Colon and Luis Ruiz suffered injuries but escaped death after a terrorist opened fire on June 12, 2016, in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. After surviving the second-worst mass shooting in U.S. history, in which 49 people died, Colon and Ruiz walked away from their homosexual lifestyles and became Christians.

More Than a Victim: The Angel Colon and Luis Ruiz Story gives a partial account of what happened to the pair at Pulse and how they found new freedom in Christ. The response to the 53-minute film, available to stream on Amazon Prime, has thrilled Colon and Ruiz. They said parents and pastors have contacted them and asked to show the movie in their churches. The duo also praised Amazon for its willingness to stream the film in June during LGBT Pride Month.

“We are so thankful that there are people out there that are ready to hear us out and tell our stories even if they disagree,” Ruiz told Movieguide. Already, the two are planning another documentary about their conversion with former lesbian and filmmaker M.J. Nixon. —Sharon Dierberger

Associated Press/Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision (file) Associated Press/Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision (file) Stassi Schroeder

The ghosts of past posts

TV networks have fired a slew of on-air talent in the past few weeks over racially offensive social media posts. Bravo ousted several reality show stars, starting with Vanderpump Rules’ Stassi Schroeder, Kristen Doute, Brett Caprioni, and Max Boyens, for various racist actions and posts several years ago. Next, the network booted Peter Hunziker of Below Deck Mediterranean.

MTV reportedly fired Teen Mom’s Taylor Selfridge—though she says she left voluntarily—for past tweets, including one from 2012 that said, “Sometimes I won’t greet Black people because they scare me.”

The Flash actor Hartley Sawyer lost his job after The CW discovered his derogatory opinions on Twitter about women, African Americans, and gay people before he could delete them.

The Daily Mail and Page Six of the New York Post reported multiple networks hired private investigative firm Edward Myers & Associates, which helps crack Los Angeles County’s toughest gang murders, to vet auditioning cast members more thoroughly. —S.D.

Facebook/Christian Nilsson Facebook/Christian Nilsson Eric Tabach (left) and Christian Nilsson

Only in the movies

How does a movie made in a few weeks with a budget of $0 manage to top the U.S. box office? A coronavirus loophole.

Filmmaker Christian Nilsson and actor Eric Tabach noticed the dearth of new films and low ticket sales due to COVID-19 restrictions and saw an opportunity to make the No. 1 movie in America.

Nillson wrote the horror script, Unsubscribe, in one sitting. Tabach enlisted friends to act, including Charlie Tahan from the TV drama Ozark. “Absolutely nothing was going on. Everyone wanted to be part of this fun project, for free,” Tabach said. They used Zoom to shoot all the footage then bought all the tickets in a rented New York cinema and attended the 29-minute premiere by themselves. Shortly after, IMDb announced Unsubscribed, with top ticket sales on June 10, was Numero Uno—for one day. —S.D.

Filmmaker Joel Schumacher dies

Batman Forever and Batman & Robin director Joel Schumacher died in New York on Monday after fighting cancer for a year, a representative said. He was 80.

Though he started as a costume director, Schumacher established himself as a well-known director in the 1980s and 90s. He helped make the Brat Pack—a group of young actors who often collaborated in the 1980s—famous with his first hit, St. Elmo’s Fire. Batman Forever starring Val Kilmer was a box-office success in 1995. Batman & Robin, starring George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell, got poor reviews. Clooney called it “a waste of money.”

Schumacher later directed several thrillers and a screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Phantom of the Opera. When not behind the camera, he bragged about his promiscuous homosexual lifestyle, but he also talked of the pain of losing so many friends to AIDS in the early years of the epidemic. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Collin Garbarino
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  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Tue, 06/23/2020 11:24 pm

    So what about Betty Crocker? Oppressed homemaker? Sun-Maid raisins girl-serving wench? Orvil Redenbacher, Stubb's Barbeque...I'm sorry, but I never envisioned Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben as "subservient". They were mascots just like Betty, Orvil, Grandma, the Quaker Oats man...If you want to find something to be offended by, you'll always find something. Seems like a professor at a Christian collge wouldn't be so thin-skinned.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Thu, 06/25/2020 08:07 pm

    Precisely my thinking after reading the first story.  It seems like "wokeness" has reached at least one professor at Wheaton.  I wish to echo the voice of Williams, Harrington and Harris, in questioning the rush to judgement and quickly "cancelling" these images (or statues).  My concern is these actions only feed the current cultural impulse to blindly follow our emotions, however sincere they may be or problematic be their rationalisations.

  • RC
    Posted: Wed, 06/24/2020 09:36 am

    Wow!  In my head Aunt Jemima was a person, who happened to be a African American women, who came up with a great pancake recipe for her family.  I made no association with slavery, or someone being subservient to anyone.  When it comes to purchasing products, we are generally looking at quality and price. I am sorry that people get offended when no offence was intended.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Wed, 06/24/2020 10:33 am

    And don't forget the Cream-of-Wheat chef.  When the panic buying started in the early days of the pandemic, Cream-of-Wheat sold out right away in my area whereas there was still a fairly decent stock of Malt-O-Meal on the shelves. I attributed it to the theory that many consumers don't know they are the exact same product because they're more familiar with the former.  (I had to check the box myself; I didn't know either.)  Or maybe Cream-of-Wheat is just better.  But porridge is one of those things you either like or you don't and that brand has been around a lot longer.  

  • Mamma Peach
    Posted: Wed, 06/24/2020 11:39 am

    So, then... will all the mascots be white or animals? I wonder how that is anti-rasist. Maybe no more mascots at all, only abstract art or pictures of the product.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Wed, 06/24/2020 11:59 am

    Nanamiro's right.  People are naturally drawn to other people -- that's why using mascots is so effective in branding.  You can only do so much with photography to make some products look exciting.  Marketing products with smiling faces saying, "Trust me, you'll like this," confirms our inherent nature.  If the trend in marketing is going to be to remove all likenesses, it will most certainly level the playing field for producers, but making advertising so impersonal would be a shame.  It would devalue us as God's special creation and reinforce the idea that our only purpose on this earth is to support a material economy and little else, which, coincidentally, is one of the main tenets of Marxism.  

  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Wed, 06/24/2020 09:33 pm

    Uncle Ben's and Aunt Jemima brands should keep the names, remove the black faces and, since Ben and Jemima are solid Old Testament names, put on faces of Orthodox Jews, like Tevye and Yente from Fiddler on the Roof.  That solves the Caucasian vs. African image problem and the brands could not be accused of a "cultural appropriation".

  • TIM MILLER
    Posted: Thu, 06/25/2020 01:46 pm

    I never grew up associating Aunt Jemima with slavery either ... but I wasn't aware of this history:

    "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."

    Given this history, I think it's appropriate to retire the logo and give it a refresh. 

  • JerryM
    Posted: Thu, 06/25/2020 09:10 pm

    Images that clearly promote racism should be removed.  However, current actions suggest we are looking at images as potential micro aggressions.  In this respect, I wonder If similar logic would apply, for example, to portraits of the founding fathers or Mount Rushmore?  Where does it stop? Are images, like people, redeemable?

  • OldMike
    Posted: Thu, 06/25/2020 11:11 pm

    My local Walmart still had Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup this afternoon. I thought about buying several to sell later on eBay.  Because the price might go up. My wife thought it a dumb idea. Heheh. 

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