“So now any black person’s photo on a box is racism? Give me a break.”
That message was one of many that crossed my screen after sharing a story I had written about Aunt Jemima and other brands finally facing their racist legacies amid the cultural reckoning happening across the country.
It occurred to me, as the messages came rolling in, that many people don’t know the full history behind the longtime pancake box logo.
Honestly, until recently, I didn’t know the full story either. And while the truth is hard to hear, it's important for all Americans to understand the context.
How we got here
Many of these harmful characters were created for minstrel shows, the most popular form of entertainment in the United States in the 1800s.
“Minstrel show entertainment was a kind of precursor to vaudeville,” Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American studies at Yale, said. It involved all-male troupes of white entertainers who were “blacked up,” aka putting on blackface, and performing acts “designed to mimic and caricature” Black people.
The shows, which started in New York City, were very popular with working-class white people, especially immigrants who used them “to define the ways they’re not Black,” Brooks explained.
“(The shows) … dehumanize African Americans as being buffoonish and able to withstand extreme forms of violence,” she said. “So there’s quite a bit of comedic slapstick spectacle, which emphasized the ways the black body could endure … which is really important in this cultural moment.”
The caricatures from those shows became the archetypal figures of Black stereotypes that Americans carried forward with them into the next century; among them, the "mammy."
“She was a comic minstrel character,” Diane Roberts, author of the 1994 book “The Myth of Aunt Jemima,” told TMRW. “She cooked and hit people over the head with a rolling pin.”
The mammy archetype inspired the character and later brand of Aunt Jemima.
The original Aunt Jemima was an older woman dressed as though she were still living on the plantation, with a handkerchief to cover her hair. She spoke in a (likely invented) dialect and the company hired women to portray her at world's fair expositions.
“It made white people happy because, look at her: she’s smiling and she wanted you to eat those pancakes,” Roberts said. “And if she’s smiling, she’s happy and we don’t have to feel that bad.”
Other archetypes invented around the same time were the “Black dandy,” an arrogant, ostentatious man who tried to appear dignified but wasn’t, and “Jim Crow,” a stereotypical slave. The "Jezebel” was a sexually promiscuous woman.
There was also the “Uncle Tom” character, the male version of the mammy character, named after the novel by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin."
As the minstrel shows reached their height at the turn of the century, the troupes would travel throughout the country, putting on shows, sometimes in places without many Black people.
“In communities and cities that don’t have a lot of African American people … these images began to take on a level of truth for them,” explained Dwandalyn Reece, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“So you can see how stereotypes start to plant seeds and really foster into a way of interacting and interpreting people of other ethnicities and races,” she added.
Reece explained that the minstrel shows were an American art form that shaped the future of our country’s entertainment — becoming the basis for variety shows in early television and even some comedy today — but it reduced Black people to a type.
“A type that people become very fond of, a type that takes away any kind of individuality,” she explained. “These types get regurgitated over and over until people don’t see anything wrong with them.”
In the 1800s, it got to the point where groups of white women would gather for mammy-themed parties, Brooks said. They donned blackface, put on headscarves and performed in an exaggerated dialect at events.
“In certain spaces, they hired a Black woman to play the role of Aunt Jemima,” Brooks added. “This is a kind of cultural phenomenon.”
But what the parties didn’t address was the character’s intent: tying Black women to the service industry for white households.
“She is deeply rooted in the cultural imagination as having everything to do with the service role African American women will play in white people’s lives,” she explained.
The company first hired a woman named Nancy Green to play the role of Aunt Jemima, traveling the country to do cooking demonstrations and promote the brand.
Chicago newspaper clippings from her obituary in 1923 went as far as to claim she invented the pancake mix. She played Aunt Jemima until she was hit by a car at the age of 89 and was buried in an unmarked grave, Roberts said.
Green was just one of many Black actors who found work doing some sort of minstrelsy. There were limited jobs for Black Americans after the Civil War, Brooks said, so many joined the minstrel shows, even darkening their skin to perform as the exaggerated stereotypes.
“One of the ways you can make a living is to ‘black up’ and perform in these caricatures of Blackness, invented by white people,” she said. “You can make a living that way.”
Nothing emphasized that more than using the titles aunt or uncle.
“One should be forced to ask whose aunt is she? What is the family structure in which this figure is embedded, and if we don’t know that history then that’s a problem,” Brooks said. “And the more violent answer to the question would be: She has no family, other than the one in which she’s been incorporated to serve.”
Where do we go from here?
Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and co-editor of the book "Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience," explained that she thinks of race as a channel on the radio, always playing 24/7, to which “many people tune in but most people do not.”
“Things have happened because the world was really quiet and the George Floyd incident somehow captured the hearts and minds of people such that they started to tune into race,” Roberts said. “Now it’s out in the open … There’s just been a groundswell of people confronting race head-on and making a commitment or promise to improve the situation.”
The shift in this country is forcing many of us to ponder the history and context in our popular culture and media. Where do these images come from and how did we get here? Even if logos are changed — like Aunt Jemima was modernized in the late 1980s — what impact does its history have on people?
“While a label on a box might be very benign, the history of it wasn’t," Reece explained. “I don’t think you can overstate enough the psychic wound it presents when it keeps coming up over and over again."