If you grew up in North America, you're likely familiar with Aunt Jemima, known for pancake mixes and syrups. However, in recent years, its parent company, Quaker, changed its name and branding due to its racist origins. Let's explore the true story behind Aunt Jemima.
The Real Story of Aunt Jemima
The Aunt Jemima brand has been around for over 130 years. Although there's a rumor that a former slave named Nancy Green invented the product, it was actually created by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood in 1889 in St. Joseph, Missouri. Their goal was to make an easy and delicious self-rising pancake mix.
The name "Aunt Jemima" was inspired by a popular song called "Old Aunt Jemima," featuring a happy black maid. To promote the brand, Nancy Green was hired to portray Aunt Jemima at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Her portrayal boosted the brand's popularity, making her closely associated with it.
Over the years, Aunt Jemima's image evolved into a stereotypical portrayal of an African-American woman. She became a mammy figure, depicting a loyal, nurturing, and submissive black domestic worker. The brand's advertisements and imagery perpetuated these stereotypes.
In recent decades, Aunt Jemima faced increasing criticism for its racially insensitive imagery. Activists, scholars, and consumers argued that the character promoted harmful stereotypes and overlooked the diverse experiences of African-American women. Calls for a name change and a reevaluation of the brand's history grew louder.
In response to mounting criticism, the Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo responsible for the Aunt Jemima brand, made a significant announcement in June 2020. They revealed their decision to retire the Aunt Jemima name and logo, acknowledging the brand's roots in racial stereotypes. Their commitment was to pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable future. Additionally, they pledged to donate $5 million over five years to support the black community.
After an extensive evaluation process involving input from consumers, employees, and stakeholders, the Aunt Jemima brand officially transitioned to its new name, the Pearl Milling Company, in February 2021. This name change is a nod to the original milling company responsible for creating the self-rising pancake mix that eventually became Aunt Jemima.
Reactions to this change were mixed. Some argued that it should have happened long ago, echoing the reasons Quaker cited for the rebranding: it perpetuated a stereotype rooted in slavery. On the other hand, some believed it erased the legacy of Nancy Green, the original Aunt Jemima. However, it's important to note that Green's role in creating the products and her compensation have been subjects of controversy.
Rumors That Spread Online
Rumors circulated online that Green's recipes and likeness were allegedly used without credit or proper compensation by Rutt and Underwood. Patricia Dickson, for instance, shared a tweet that garnered widespread attention on Facebook:
"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 some misconceptions, Nancy Green's story is rooted in a complex history. She was born into slavery and later, at the age of 59, found employment with the Pearl Milling Company. This company had acquired Aunt Jemima from Rutt and Underwood, the original creators. Green's role was to travel across the country, portraying Aunt Jemima, a role she continued until her tragic death in 1923 at the age of 89 when she was struck by a car. It's true that Green contributed significantly to the Pearl Milling Company's profits during her 30 years with them. While some argue that she was well compensated, there's no concrete evidence to suggest that she shared in the product's financial success beyond her regular wages. Equality in payment is also doubtful.
Rutt and Underwood developed the recipe for the self-rising pancake mix independently through trial and error. Due to their limited marketing expertise, they eventually sold the product to the Pearl Milling Company. This historical connection prompted Quaker to rebrand the product as a tribute to the company that played a pivotal role in Aunt Jemima's immense success.
Removing Racist Stereotypes From Circulation
The controversy and discussions surrounding this name change reflect broader conversations about racial representation, cultural appropriation, and corporate responsibility in the United States. Many view the decision to rename Aunt Jemima as a step towards acknowledging and rectifying the harmful legacies of racial stereotypes in popular culture. The renaming process, however, has sparked debate. Some argue that retiring the old stereotype rooted in racism should have happened decades ago, while others contend that removing Aunt Jemima from the packaging erases Nancy Green's "legacy." Yet, as we now understand, what that legacy truly represents is often misunderstood. Regardless, the product now carries the name Pearl Milling Company and features an image of an old milling factory. The classic red label, however, remains unchanged.