This column was written off the June 2020 news that the Aunt Jemima brand would be retired. PepsiCo announced Feb. 9, 2021, that it would be known going forward as Pearl Milling Company.
Her name should have fallen off boxes and bottles years ago, and the fact that it didn’t suggests that the companies that controlled the brand for more than a century have all been slaves to profit — holding onto a valuable trademark that’s internationally known and historically offensive.
I admit to having a complicated relationship with Aunt Jemima. She occupies a secret branch of my family tree. For a period of time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, my grandmother, Ione Brown, was part of an army of women who worked as traveling Aunt Jemimas, visiting small-town fairs and rotary-club breakfasts to conduct pancake-making demonstrations at a time when the notion of ready-mix convenience cooking was new.
I never knew about my grandmother’s work until long after she died. It was one of those things my family never really talked about. I learned about it while researching a family memoir called “The Grace of Silence.” I learned that she made good money and covered a region including Iowa, the Dakotas, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. She was often treated like a celebrity in small towns, but could not stay in local hotels. She kept an eye out for houses that had a small sign in the window that said “TOURIST,” a code for homes that provided lodging and meals to black people.
This is a complicated legacy for my family. Ione was a civic leader in Minneapolis, founder of a senior center that is still thriving today on 38th Street, a few blocks from where George Floyd was killed last month. As a family, we are offended by the caricature that Aunt Jemima represents, but deeply proud of the way my grandmother used the stage that was available to lift herself up. You see, in those days Aunt Jemima didn’t look like the lady you see on the box today. She was a slave woman, and Ione was expected to act and talk like a slave woman, using the kind of broken patois that blighted the full-page ads in magazines like Women’s Day and Life.
But the women who represented the brand often refused to follow that script. They wore the costume because the company refused to let them show up in a smart suit, but in many cases, they dropped the broken English. My grandmother sang gospel songs so people would know she was a woman of God, and she focused on children because she knew that many of those little white boys and girls had never seen a black woman before. She must have blown their minds when she served pancakes, reciting Bible verses and poetry from heart in the crisp diction I remember from childhood, when she would fuss at me and my cousins for droppin’ the letter “g” from the end of our words.
I peered into my grandmother’s history with dread and trepidation. I emerged with a deep well of respect for how she and women with names like Rosa, Joburness, Edith and Aylene flipped the stereotype on its head to show America what black elegance sounded like, even while wearing a headscarf and an apron.
Quaker Oats, on the other hand, earned my ire on several fronts. Aunt Jemima was based on the idea that you could have a servant in your kitchen, smiling from the box, easing your burden, and it has been that way since the brand was first created back in 1889. Quaker Oats ignored boycotts and petitions and instead engaged in a tortured series of makeovers that amount to a process of attempted de-mammification.
Jemima’s do-rag was replaced by a plaid headband. Eventually the headdress was dropped altogether. A 1989 rebrand made her look like someone who shops at Macy’s: Coifed hair. Pearl earrings. Red lipstick. At various points, the company turned for help to consultants like Caroline Jones, who ran the nation’s top black ad agency, and who told the company: “White people may have long forgotten the slaves of old, but no Black person can.” PepsiCo, which acquired Quaker Oats in 2001, has now realized that de-mammification is not the same as destigmatization.
There is now a growing list of outfits revisiting troubling brands. The country group Lady Antebellum has changed its name to Lady A. NASCAR has banned the use of the Confederate flag. The Mars Company is trying to decide what to do about Uncle Ben. Time to retire him, too. The companies that clung to these brands need to do some honest soul-searching to own up to why they waited so long to let go.
One of the things that irks me most about the Jemima brand is the way the mammy stereotype hijacked what should be an endearing image for black America and tried to turn it into something toxic. Most of us have someone in our family with fleshy arms and a loving smile who serves up cherished advice along with delicious food. They are our aunts and mothers and grandmothers. Our godmothers. Our queens.
You tried to make us ashamed of what Aunt Jemima stood for. But we have always known that the real women the silent spokeswoman was supposed to represent deserved crowns on their heads instead of a do-rag.
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