Aunt Jemima will soon be freed from her pancake and syrup servitude. All it took was 130 years — and the police killing of George Floyd — for the company that created her to finally acknowledge its racist logo as racist.
“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, said in a statement announcing that the breakfast food brand logo and name will be changed.
This isn’t an epiphany. It’s a calculated business decision that’s many decades late and marked, most recently, with the blood of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks. For years, consumers and civil rights activists have been clamoring for the removal of that logo and name — most recently, in a viral TikTok by singer-songwriter Kirby Lauryen called “How to Make a Non Racist Breakfast.”
In an eerily prescient article this month, The Onion joked that Quaker Oats would replace its “historically racist” branding with “Sheila,” a “Black Female Lawyer Who Enjoys Pancakes Sometimes.”
Other companies are now promising to review and change racist logos, including Uncle Ben’s rice; Cream of Wheat, which features “Rastus,” a cook modeled after Frank L. White, a Black chef in early 20th century Chicago; and Mrs. Butterworth pancake syrup. All of these caricatures were created to represent a gruesome lie of Black people in giddy, docile servitude. Their silent, smiling faces foster supremacist notions that persist to this day — that, as enslaved people, African Americans were content, cared for, and happiest catering to white people in rooms where they themselves could never eat.
And get rid of Colonel Sanders, too. KFC’s grandfatherly fried chicken peddler is not innocuous. He, too, is a potent symbol of white supremacy.
Harland David Sanders (not a real US Army colonel) founded Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952 — more than 80 years after the end of the Civil War. Yet with the nation deep in the marrow of the Jim Crow era, he adapted one of the most ludicrous tropes of the antebellum South — the avuncular, benevolent plantation owner.
Long after Sanders’ death in 1980, the image he created has proven so durable, the company keeps hiring actors to portray him — white goatee, black string tie, magnolia-tongued delivery and all. Among those tapped in recent years to play him in commercials: Jason Alexander, Rob Lowe, Ray Liotta, and comedians Norm Macdonald and Jim Gaffigan. Even country singer Reba McEntire took a swing as the first female colonel.
So far, officials from KFC haven’t said anything about whether their logo will also change. Of course, they must know that if Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are done, so, too, is that white-suited man whose image evokes Southern plantation life and all its attendant horrors.
KFC hasn’t even bothered to modernize him, not that it would have made a difference. Aunt Jemima was first given a makeover in 1968, her kerchief replaced with a headband; in 1989, the headband was swapped for a perm and earrings, but no matter. A Mammy figure in pearl earrings is still a Mammy.
For decades, Mammy figures were so iconic, they were common as salt-and-pepper shakers, banks, cookie jars, sugar bowls, teapots, tobacco tins, and, of course, syrup jars. Reproductions, as well as originals, remain a booming market worldwide for collectors.
To be clear, there’s nothing dishonorable about being a maid, a cook, or a butler. I am the proud granddaughter of a woman who wrecked her knees, missed holidays with her family, and took long subway rides home alone after dark during the 40 years she worked for rich white families living in some of Manhattan’s toniest ZIP codes.
Aunt Jemima was not created to honor women like my grandmother. Her image did not champion their arduous, often low-paid work. It mocked them. Those homey images of Black subservience coddled fearful white people and demeaned African Americans through Jim Crow, the civil rights years, perhaps even now during the Black Lives Matter movement. When a Black woman is called “Jemima,” it’s always a racist slur.
Anyone more upset about what’s happening to Aunt Jemima than about what happened to Floyd last month in Minneapolis, or Brooks in Atlanta, underscores why every corner of this nation’s foundational sins must be scrubbed clean, no matter how small. Symbols have power and influence. And just like statues that enshrine racists and traitors as heroes, their exile is another necessary crack in the dismantling of institutional and systemic racism.
Hey Washington Redskins, and all sports teams that make mascots of indigenous people and stereotype their cultures — you’re next.