Aunt Jemima and the long-overdue rebrand of racist stereotypes

By: Terry Nguyen,  Vox
June 17, 2020

Despite this wholesome-sounding message, the Aunt Jemima figure is rooted in Jim Crow-era perceptions of black women, specifically the Southern “mammy” stereotype of a loyal and submissive servant. As Riché Richardson, an associate professor of African American literature at Cornell University, wrote in the New York Times in 2015, the icon is “an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia,” which visually portrayed her “as an asexual, plump black woman wearing a headscarf.” (Her headscarf was turned into a headband in 1968.)

The name “Aunt Jemima” is derived from the minstrel song “Old Aunt Jemima” by Billy Kersands, a popular black comedian in the late 19th century. In her book Black Hunger: Soul Food and America, researcher Doris Witt explored the various pop culture narratives that emerged around Aunt Jemima, which legitimized her as a brand and familiar trope to a white audience that bought into these products. The production and consumption of Aunt Jemima iconography, Witt theorized, was “inextricably linked to the material production and consumption of Aunt Jemima pancake mix in a rapidly expanding commodity system,” one that relied on exploitable labor to be profitable.

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Professor Riche Richardson