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It was past time for Aunt Jemima’s image to go

Quaker Oats has conceded that some black consumers believed the image represented a negative stereotype of black women

The Aunt Jemima image has long been reviled in the black community, even as it existed as an iconic advertising image. On Wednesday, Quaker Oats decided that as part of an effort by the company to “make progress toward racial equality,” it will rename the Aunt Jemima brand and create a new image. “Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” the Quaker Oats press release said.

After 131 years, it was long past time for it to go. Quaker Oats held onto Aunt Jemima, with revisions of the look, through decades of controversy over the way black women were stereotyped by the image. It seems to have taken the worldwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd while in police custody — where many companies and individuals are examining their racial attitudes and some are taking remedial action — for Quaker Oats to finally get rid of it.

At the beginning, from its original logo design based on a minstrel song, “Old Aunt Jemima,” in 1889 to the purchase of the logo by the Quaker Oats Co. in 1925, the Aunt Jemima image was a disrespectful caricature of black women: a thick-lipped woman with a wide, toothy grin, a scarf tied around her head and a red-and-white scarf around her neck. The pancake mix was introduced at a time when most black women worked as domestics for white people and were commonly referred to as “aunt” instead of “Mrs.” and black men were called “uncle” instead of “Mr.” Black folks hated Aunt Jemima.

“Can we please, finally, get rid of Aunt Jemima?” Riché Richardson, an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, asked in a 2015 opinion piece for The New York Times.

Being called “Aunt Jemima” meant that you were messy and so lazy that you covered your hair with a rag instead of combing it.

In 1989, Quaker Oats removed the headscarf, took the other scarf from around her neck, added pearl earrings, a lace collar and a simple hairstyle with a streak of gray to make it more contemporary. Still, the company said it wasn’t giving in to pressure by changing the image. Aunt Jemima remained on the box. Quaker Oats has conceded that some black consumers believed the image represented a negative stereotype of black women.

“They feel so adamantly about it they won’t buy the product,” Ron Bottrell, director of media relations for Quaker Oats, told me in 1991. I was writing an article for the Cleveland Plain Dealer about an Aunt Jemima pancake breakfast held at Red Oak Presbyterian Church in rural Ohio, in honor of Rosa Washington Riles, an Aunt Jemima actress. She spent about 30 years touring Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and parts of Illinois portraying Aunt Jemima and giving cooking demonstrations. She is buried at the church cemetery.

I attended the 1991 breakfast, held during Memorial Day weekend, interviewing the organizers and observing the scene. The breakfast was a fundraiser for the church cemetery, where black and white people are buried. There was a collection of Aunt Jemima memorabilia, including sheet music for the “Aunt Jemima Two-Step,” a cakewalk tune; salt-and-pepper shakers dressed like Aunt Jemima; an “Aunt Jemima Breakfast Club” pin; a penny bank; and a syrup pitcher. There was a portrait of Riles dressed like Aunt Jemima, painted by a California artist who, according to one of the organizers, used a Hershey’s chocolate bar to achieve the right shade of brown.

Fewer than 25 black people attended out of the reported 900 total, which baffled the organizers. Ruth Salisbury, a member of Friends of Red Oak, which coordinated the breakfast, told me: “We tried to get them to be a part of it.” The group received no response after repeated appeals to area black churches and individuals.

“We never asked why,” so few black people attended, she said. “I’m not sure I know why.” She said she had never heard of the negative image of Aunt Jemima. “We thought it was helping the black community as well as the white community to help the cemetery,” said another organizer, Clyde Neu.

“I get a sense sometimes that white people can do whatever they want. I think it offends people. I would never attend,” a black Brown County, Ohio, woman told me.

I had never encountered such a parallel racial divide: white people believing that they are doing a good thing by creating a fundraiser to honor a black woman, and black people who hated the image she represented refusing to attend. That is, white people doing whatever they wanted with racial imagery without asking black people how they felt about it.

Today, thanks to the visual revisions in the image over the years, the drawing on the Aunt Jemima pancake box seems much more benign. There are millions of young black people who didn’t grow up having to endure the grinning caricature. There’s still that name, its history and the disconnect.

In this moment, when it seems that so many are open to change, Quaker Oats made the right move. On the heels of Quaker Oats’ announcement, owner Mars Inc. said Wednesday it is rethinking its Uncle Ben’s rice branding. Conagra is even taking another look at Mrs. Butterworth’s.

But bridging the disconnect is the true, most pressing challenge.

Karin Berry is copy chief for Andscape. She’s way too short for the basketball court, but she’s got mad editing skills and a mean red pen.