If you were raised in North America, chances are you are well-acquainted with the Aunt Jemima brand. Whether you enjoyed their pancake mixes, pancake syrups, or both during your upbringing, you've likely tasted their products at least once or twice. Nevertheless, in recent times, the parent company of the Aunt Jemima brand, Quaker, opted to rebrand and rename the Aunt Jemima products. Why did they make this change? It was due to the brand's problematic history rooted in racism. Here's the untold tale of Aunt Jemima.
The Real Story Of Aunt Jemima
The Aunt Jemima brand, renowned for its pancake mix and syrup, has a storied history spanning more than 130 years. Although there exists a rumor suggesting that a former slave named Nancy Green invented the product, the brand was actually established by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood in 1889, located in St. Joseph, Missouri. Its original intent was to craft a convenient and delectable self-rising pancake mix.
The moniker "Aunt Jemima" drew its inspiration from a well-liked song of that era known as "Old Aunt Jemima," which depicted a cheerful and amiable African-American maid. In a bid to promote the brand, Rutt and Underwood enlisted the services of Nancy Green to embody the Aunt Jemima character during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. Nancy Green's portrayal played a pivotal role in boosting the brand's popularity, and she became closely identified with the character.
Over time, the Aunt Jemima character underwent a transformation that regrettably conformed to stereotypical portrayals of African-American women, perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes. The character came to be depicted as a "mammy" figure, a term associated with a devoted, nurturing, and submissive black domestic worker. The brand's visual representation and advertising campaigns unfortunately contributed to the reinforcement of these detrimental stereotypes.
In recent decades, increasing scrutiny has been directed towards the Aunt Jemima brand and its racially insensitive visual elements. Activists, scholars, and consumers have voiced concerns that the character propagated damaging stereotypes and failed to acknowledge the multifaceted and varied experiences of African-American women. Calls for a name change and a comprehensive reevaluation of the brand's historical context have gained momentum.
In reaction to these critiques, the Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo responsible for the Aunt Jemima brand, made an announcement in June 2020. They declared their intention to retire the Aunt Jemima name and logo, recognizing the brand's roots in racial stereotypes. Their commitment extended toward fostering a more inclusive and fair future. Additionally, the company vowed to contribute $5 million over a span of five years to support the black community.
Following a thorough review process that engaged consumers, employees, and stakeholders, the Aunt Jemima brand officially transitioned to its new name, the Pearl Milling Company, in February 2021. This fresh name serves as a tribute to the original milling company responsible for pioneering the self-rising pancake mix that would later evolve into Aunt Jemima.
This move garnered positive reactions from some while drawing strong criticism from others. Supporters of the change argue that it should have taken place much earlier, citing the same reasons that led Quaker to discontinue the brand - the perpetuation of a stereotype rooted in slavery. Conversely, opponents argue that it erases Nancy Green's legacy, although this legacy is often misunderstood or misconstrued.
Rumors That Spread Online
Another facet of this controversy revolves around the original Aunt Jemima, Nancy Green. Online rumors circulated suggesting that she was the true creator of the products and that Rutt and Underwood had allegedly appropriated her recipe and likeness without providing proper credit or adequate compensation. For instance, Patricia Dickson's tweet, shared extensively on Facebook, encapsulates this sentiment:
"Nancy Green, (aka Aunt Jemima) was born into slavery. She was a magnificent cook. When she was 'freed' she rolled her talent into a cooking brand that (General Mills) bought & used her likeness. She died in 1923 as one of America's first black millionaires."
Contrary to these claims, historical records reveal a different narrative. Nancy Green was born into slavery. At the age of 59, the Pearl Milling Company, which had acquired Aunt Jemima from Rutt and Underwood, employed her to embark on nationwide tours portraying Aunt Jemima. She continued in this role until her passing in 1923 at the age of 89, a tragic accident involving a car. During her three decades of service, Green undoubtedly contributed significantly to the substantial profits of the Pearl Milling Company. While some argue that she received fair compensation, there exists no concrete evidence to suggest that she benefited financially from the product's success beyond her wages. The issue of equitable pay also lacks definitive substantiation.
Rutt and Underwood developed the self-rising pancake mix recipe through their own experimentation and learning. Lacking expertise in marketing their creation, they opted to sell it to the Pearl Milling Company. Consequently, Quaker chose to rebrand the product line with this name as a tribute to the company that played a pivotal role in making Aunt Jemima a resounding success.
Removing Racist Stereotypes From Circulation
The discussions and controversies surrounding the name change resonate with broader dialogues about racial representation, cultural appropriation, and corporate accountability in the United States. For many, the rebranding of Aunt Jemima symbolizes a significant step in acknowledging and addressing the enduring repercussions of racial stereotypes within popular culture.
The decision to change the name of Aunt Jemima has sparked contentious debates. Some argue that retiring this long-standing stereotype rooted in racism should have occurred decades ago. Conversely, there are those who contend that removing Aunt Jemima from the packaging also erases Nancy Green's perceived "legacy," although it's become evident that this legacy has been widely misunderstood. Nonetheless, the product has now become the Pearl Milling Company, featuring an image of a historic milling factory. Interestingly, the classic red label has remained unchanged.