Announced today: Quaker Oats is retiring Aunt Jemima. I see now that this figure arose from the same dynamic as “Song of the South” – a softening of slavery by portraying blacks as happiest when serving whites. The same goes for Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat (I had completely forgotten that it sports art of a smiling black cook until I looked at a package in our own cupboard). What a boost for white supremacy – these depictions of inferior support beings, as loyal and contented as dogs. More broadly, it seems to me that Aunt Jemima was shifted over to represent the nurturing mother in general – that person whose highest aim and proper role in life is to run a household, the same person who appears in commercials hellbent on getting whites white and stocking the best peanut butter at home. So a racial stereotype merged with a sexist one.
As I think about all of this, I’m starting to muse about the underpinnings of what I might feel if I see a black actor portraying Scrooge. If so many hints, clues and signs feed the notion that only whites can be at the pinnacle, and that other races revolve around them, then it will seem unnatural and improper if the white role is “usurped.”
In the Wikipedia article about Aunt Jemima, I was most interested to learn about Anna Julia Cooper, an admirable figure who spoke against Aunt Jemima from the beginning for what it was:
The R. T. Davis Milling Company hired former slave Nancy Green as a spokesperson for the Aunt Jemima pancake mix in 1890. Nancy Green was born in Montgomery County, Kentucky, and played the Jemima character from 1890 until her death on August 30, 1923. As Jemima, Green operated a pancake-cooking display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, USA in 1893, appearing beside the “world’s largest flour barrel”. From this point on, marketing materials for the line of products centered around the stereotypical mammy archetype, including the Aunt Jemima marketing slogan first used at the World Fair: “I’s in Town, Honey”. Anna Julia Cooper used the World’s Columbian Exposition as an opportunity to address how young African American women were being exploited by white men. She predicted the appeal of Aunt Jemima and the southern domestic ideal and went on to describe the north’s fascination with southern traditions as part of America’s “unwritten history”. Progressive African American women post emancipation saw Aunt Jemima’s image as a setback that inspired a regression in race relations.
Here’s a litmus test – ask women: would they be proud to win a hypothetical Aunt Jemima College Scholarship? Would they attend an Aunt Jemima panel at a parenting Conference? Would anyone even share a post that they won the Aunt Jemima Recipe Contest? Is being compared to Aunt Jemima in any way a compliment? The answers all around are no.
This kind of degrading stereotype could certainly underlie any feeling that it is “beneath” an esteemed character such as Scrooge to be portrayed by a black actor.
(Note: Reminder that Dan Gasby, husband of B. Smith, has this controversy in his background)