Quaker Oats, a company that has been owned by PepsiCo since 2001, announced June 17 that it was going to retire its character, “Aunt Jemima,” due to it being a “racial stereotype” according to Quaker Foods North America spokeswoman Kristin Kroepfl.
Aunt Jemima’s retirement came after singer Kirby Maurier posted a TikTok video, “How to Make a Non Racist Breakfast,” in which she asked, “Did you know Aunt Jemima means slave mammy of the plantation south?”
The decision from Quaker Oats is part of sweeping changes taking place as nationwide protests calling for police reform and racial equity following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. CNN has reported that other companies, such as the ones behind Uncle Ben’s rice and Ms. Butterworth syrup, are considering significant changes to their products, which also feature black characters.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The ‘Aunt Jemima’ Image Was Supposed To Be Upgraded in 2016
According to the New York Times, Quaker Oats spent $245,000 on marketing the brand. Wilburn described Aunt Jemima as a “category leader and nobody wanted to mess with that stream of revenue.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/business/aunt-jemima-racial-stereotype.html Quaker Oats said that it would donate $5 million over the next five years to “create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community.”
Kroepfl said that, “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough,” according to the Associated Press.
The Washington Post reported that Aunt Jemima’s image did receive an upgrade in 1989, where she was given pearl earring and a lace collar and her headscarf was removed.
According to what Dominique Wilburn, a former executive assistant at PepsiCo, told the New York Times, the company had been trying to rebrand Aunt Jemima since 2016. Some of the ideas included giving the character a back story, change the character’s hair from straightened to natural and even sending Quaker Oats employees to a plantation in the south as part of education on the legacy of slavery.
However, that upgrade never took place and the character — described as a “mammy” character — is particularly problematic, according to what Cornell University Associate Professor Riché Richardson told local news station WSTM-3.
It is an image of Black womanhood rooted in, as I’ve said in some of my work, the ongoing assault on the Black maternal body within slavery, her qualities and characteristics included being a caretaker, particularly for the children of her white master and mistress, while being more detached or indifferent for caring for her own children. So, historically, this imagery is part of a nostalgic view of the old south that romanticized slavery.
2. Singer’s Video On Aunt Jemima Went Viral
Many have credited a Tiktok video from singer Kirby Maurier that went viral; the video has received nearly three million views on Tiktok and has since been reposted on Twitter, where it has more than 330,000 views.
The video shows Maurier going to her refrigerator as she announces “Let me fix you some breakfast.” When she opens the refrigerator door, she notices that there’s a box of the Aunt Jemima pancake mix and exclaims “Aunt Jemima!?” The video cuts to her standing in front of a camera.
“Did you know Aunt Jemima means slave mammy of the plantation south? Did you the founder, Chris Ludwig Hutts, got the name from attending a minstrel show?” She asks before adding, “Think blackface.”
Maurier went into more detail:
Did you also know he hired former slave Nancy Green to be his very own Aunt Jemima, where she went around cooking pancakes and telling people stories about the good ole south. And afterward, they can take home a box of Aunt Jemima and that feeling of them having their very own mammy.
Not today, Maurier says before walking to the sink and pouring the mix out. “Black lives matter people,” she concluded. “Even over breakfast.”
3. Nancy Green, A Former Slave, Was Signed As A Promoter for the ‘Aunt Jemima’ Brand
According to Aunt Jemima’s website, “R.T. Davis purchases the Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Company. Aunt Jemima was first brought to life by Nancy Green, a storyteller, cook and missionary work” in 1890.
Green was also born into slavery, according to the African American Registry, in 1834 in Montgomery County, Kentucky. The two founders — newspaperman Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood — wanted an image for their product and Rutt found his at a vaudeville minstrel show, where a blackface performer sung a tune called “Aunt Jemima.”
After the founders sold their company to R.T. Davis, Davis met Nancy Green in Chicago and brought her along to Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the Lousiville Courier-Journal reported. When he met her, she was a cook for Judge Charles Walker, and according to Marilyn Kern-Foxworth’s Book “Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” he recommended her to Davis.
According to the African American Registry, Green was a hit at the fairs, and was awarded a medal and certificate as the “Pancake Queen.” She signed a lifetime contract to do tours nationally. Green held that job until she was hit by a car and killed in 1923, the Sunday Morning Star reported. Two years later, Quaker Oats purchased the company.
4. Anna Short Harrington Becomes the New Face of ‘Aunt Jemima’
Anna Short Harrington was born in Marlboro County, South Carolina, according to South Carolina Encyclopedia. She married Weldon Harrington and worked with him a sharecropper in North Carolina. Harrington’s granddaughter, Elizabeth reportedly told the website that Weldon killed a white landowner and escaped from prison. Without him, Harrington struggled and became the cook for a white family, staying with them when they left for Syracuse; Weldon joined the family before leaving again.
Harrington was a maid and cook at several college fraternities from Syracuse University, a local Spectrum News station reported, where her pancakes became legendary. After cooking pancakes at the New York State Fair, she was asked to be Aunt Jemima.
For nearly 15 years, she was “Aunt Jemina.” According to an obituary for Harrington, she had five children (three daughters and two sons) and seven siblings (four brothers and three sisters). She died in her late 50s and was buried in Syracuse’s Oakwood Cemetery.
5. ‘Aunt Jemima’ Descendants Sued Quaker Oats for Royalties
In 2014, D.W. Hunter, Anna Short Harrington’s great-grandson (representing all of her great-grandchildren) along with Larnell Evans Jr., filed a lawsuit against PepsiCo and Quaker Oats as well as related companies.
Hunter sought $2 billion in damages, arguing that both his great grandmother and Nancy Green were exploited for their name and likeliness and should have received royalties. Hunter also told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Aunt Jemima has become known as one of the most exploited and abused women in American history.”
The company responded by stating that the lawsuit had no merit and that “Aunt Jemima” was not based on anyone, the Guardian reported. The lawsuit was dismissed because there were no legal documents showing that the company was contractually obligated to provide those royalties.