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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 29, 2014: Uncles and Aunts: Aunt Jemima

[As I’ve highlighted in this space before, August 2nd is my sister’s birthday. She’s been a great aunt to my boys throughout their young lives, and now is expecting a child of her own, meaning that I’ll soon have a chance to be an equally great uncle (I hope!). So in this week’s series, I’ll highlight and analyze some famous American uncles and aunts.]
On the worst and best sides to the caricatured cook.
Before she was purchased and trademarked by Quaker Oats, for whom she still graces syrup bottles and other products into this 21st century moment, Aunt Jemima was brought to stereotypical life in minstrel songs and shows. African American vaudeville performer Billy Kersands apparently created the character in his 1875 song “Old Aunt Jemima,” and by the end of the next decade she had been incorporated into multiple traveling minstrel shows. The history is a bit fuzzy, but apparently Chris Rutt, a newspaper editor and the co-owner of the Pearl Milling Company, saw the character performed in one such show in 1889—perhaps played by Pete Baker, a white actor who performed Aunt Jemima in cross-dressed blackface—and made her the icon for his company’s new pancake mix; when Pearl Milling was sold to R.T. Davis Milling Company in 1890, Aunt Jemima went with it.
R.T. Davis was apparently far more ambitious than Pearl Milling, and the company made Aunt Jemima the centerpiece of its marketing plans: hiring ex-slave Nancy Green to play the character full-time, and employing her to operate a pancake cooking booth at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The move paid off, as the Aunt Jemima exhibit and its “world’s largest flour barrel” became one of the exposition’s most talked-about features, and the character and brand were launched into the position of national fame that they still hold. Given the exposition’s striking lack of actual, contemporary African Americans—a problem highlighted in the publication The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, edited by Ida B. Wells—this prominent role for Aunt Jemima was troubling to say the least. As essayist and activist Anna Julia Cooper argued in an 1893 speech, the character exemplified a longstanding and ongoing tradition of national embrace and exploitation of such Southern myths of slavery and race, one hugely detrimental to African Americans.
I wouldn’t disagree with Cooper at all, and find the continued use and popularity of Aunt Jemima to be equally troubling and in need of critique. Yet I would also argue that our histories of the character need to engage more fully with the life and work of Nancy Green, who played Jemima for more than 20 years and became the first of a number of African American women who built successful careers out of such performances. The same complex questions I raised in a post on Hattie McDaniel could be asked of these women, who on the one hand participated in the creation and dissemination of stereotypical caricatures, and on the other achieved significant success and quite possibly paved the way for future generations as a result. And for Green in particular, as an ex-slave trying to find her way in the period that has been called the nadir of post-war African American life, the opportunity to play Aunt Jemima—a character created, again, by another successful post-bellum African American performer—cannot be dismissed as purely or simply exploitation. As with so many American stories and histories, then, there are multiple sides to Aunt Jemima—and as with those pancakes she made famous, we need to make sure to pay attention to both sides.
Next uncle/aunt tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this aunt? Other uncle/aunt connections you’d highlight?


  1. I really enjoyed this post Ben! You do a good job giving us the history as well as the complexities of trying to decide if this representation of an African-American woman is bad or at least interesting. Just getting people to think about these representations in our daily lives is a good start.

  2. Agreed, thanks! And I think remembering people like Nancy Green is also crucial, whatever we think of the character she performed.