While statues in several American cities and around the world have been overthrown in the aftermath of protests launched after the death of George Floyd, another old symbol with racist overtones is now disappearing from grocery shelves.
Owned by Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima has announced that it will change its name and image to avoid fostering old stereotypes. Already in 1989, the face on the container had been modified to soften the reference to “Mammy”, this submissive black slave who cooked for the planter’s children.
Although the company was well aware of the problem, it nevertheless waited for major events before taking action, although efforts to do so had been initiated several years ago.
The Smithsonian Magazine reported in October 2014 that descendants of the “real” Aunt Jemima were taking the company to court. The descendants then claimed to use the image and recipe of their ancestor without anyone getting compensation, making them one of the great victims of exploitation and abuse in American history.
To understand a little better the decision announced by the company and to shed some light on the origins of the pursuit of descendants, I suggest you take a step back in time. The pancake mix I used to find on the family table when I was young was first developed in 1889.
The creators of the product had not chosen a female model to sell their mixture, but we still owe them the name. The famous “Aunt Jemima” was a character from a song by Billy Kersands, a minstrel who had great success with this tune. If Kersans himself was black, very often the song was interpreted by white artists who painted their faces in black. If we have often mentioned blackface in recent years, at this time the practice is common.
To see the face of a woman appear on the box of the mixture, it will be necessary to await the repurchase of the company for the company RT Davis in 1890. It is at this moment that one will ask a former black slave, Nancy Green , to become the face of the brand. It became so popular that the company was renamed in honor of the character in 1914.
In 1935, a second woman played Aunt Jemima for advertising purposes. The suit I referred to above is related to this woman, Hanna S. Harrington. According to his descendants, Harrington had to be compensated financially because he had helped develop both the image and the recipe. There is, however, no record of a written contract to validate such an agreement.
Before proceeding to modify the character’s features, the Quaker Oats company has already tried to defend its appearance and symbolism. She did it in these terms: “The image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth, hospitality and comfort and is neither based on, nor meant to depict any one person, ”according to a statement from Quaker Oats, a subsidiary of PepsiCo. “While we cannot discuss the details of pending litigation, we do not believe there is any merit to this lawsuit.” ”. We therefore insisted on the attentive, warm and welcoming character of the character without ever referring to the stereotype.
When one sometimes wonders if the current demonstrations will lead to lasting and significant spinoffs, I am tempted to answer yes. The law signed by President Trump yesterday is very timid, but important announcements have been made in several American cities. In addition to these important changes, there is also a whole reflection on the preservation of symbols and vestiges of another era.
I have already spoken on the preservation of works of art and monuments, but this is the first time that I have noticed a significant effect on a product of everyday consumption. Aunt Jemima brought the company a fortune, but his face should have disappeared long ago.