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‘Aunt Jemima,’ may she rest in peace

It is way past time for the racial stereotype to be put to rest.

Pepsico is changing the name and marketing image of its Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup.
A spokeswoman for Pepsico-owned Quaker Oats Company told AdWeek that it recognized Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype and that the 131-year-old name and image would be replaced on products and advertising by the fourth quarter of 2020.
Donald King/AP photo

There was never a time when being called “Aunt Jemima” wasn’t an insult.

It didn’t matter whether a white person used it as a pejorative, or a Black person used it to put down another Black person, “Aunt Jemima,” was a racial insult right up there with “Uncle Tom.”

“Ain’t yo mama on a pancake box,” a tormentor would yell in your face, and the fight was on.

No Black girl wanted to be called “Aunt Jemima.”

Still, Black shoppers are among the loyal consumers who have passed down this brand through generations.

Many of us tossed the item into our carts without giving much thought to the roots of the image that appeared on the packaging.

If there was a time when Black folks embraced the image of a black domestic on a pancake box as a step toward equality, it was long gone before the sit-ins and bus boycotts of the civil rights movement.

As young girls, we might not have known the history of the “Aunt Jemima” brand development, but we knew “Aunt Jemima” wasn’t an image of black womanhood that we took pride in.

No one wanted to be “Aunt Jemima,” though the reason for our intense dislike was never clear — although I know now it was shame.

Although “Aunt Jemima’s” appearance evolved over time — from a plump, very dark-skinned bandana-wearing housemaid, to a coifed Black auntie with glowing skin and a dazzling smile — that didn’t make it any better.

A previous version of “Aunt Jemima” in a photo from 1980.
CST file photo

After all, “Aunt Jemima” wasn’t breaking down any barriers — not like Madam C.J. Walker, the first woman to earn $1 million.

I had my run-in with the “Aunt Jemima” slur outside of Wrigley Field in the late ’90s.

I was working as a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, when I took my son to our first Cubs game. After leaving the field, I found myself in the middle of a crowd of drunken Cub fans.

When some of them started chanting “Aunt Jemima,” “Aunt Jemima,” I knew they weren’t talking about pancakes.

I was mortified.

Prior to that, I had not given the brand any thought.

But after that incident, I made sure the pancake mix didn’t show up in my pantry and urged readers to do the same.

Quaker Oats’ announcement on Wednesday that it is dropping the “Aunt Jemima” brand and logo shows the seismic shift that the death of George Floyd has caused in Corporate America.

With its resources, Quaker Oats knew decades ago that the “Aunt Jemima” image is an offensive racial stereotype that was rooted in the lie that Black women were happy as house slaves.

But while smaller companies have been forced (usually by online campaigns) to respond to criticisms over logos that sparked racial controversy, the “Aunt Jemima” logo has survived.

It is way past time to lay her to rest.

Given the fed-up mood that is sweeping the country, other corporations will have no choice but to evaluate their own logos, advertising and brands.

Mars, the maker of Uncle Ben’s rice is also considering a change in the rice brand.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For instance, “Uncle Ben’s” rice is also trying to come up with its own re-branding strategy.

But the protest movement that we watched unfold in the weeks after Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer goes far beyond images.

Food giants can successfully re-brand a pancake mix, especially at a time when racial atonement is on our hearts and minds.

But a “makeover” won’t change the kind of animosity that caused one man to put his knee on another man’s neck until that man was dead.

That is going to take a transformation of the soul, as well as a change of moral leadership.

Frankly, it is scary that it has taken widespread civil unrest for corporate America to get serious about confronting the symbols of racial injustice.

“Aunt Jemima’s” demise would have happened sooner had an empowered, racially sensitive executive of the food giant took a stand.