So long, Aunt Jemima (1889-2020)
Slave in A Box

UVA Press author Maurice M. Manring, whose book Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima was published in 1998, writes about his experience researching and writing about the figure of Aunt Jemima. You can read more from Manring in this article published in The Associated Press on 6/19/20.

About 25 years ago, I predicted that the racially charged joke that advertisers told about a character named Aunt Jemima “has a long time to go before it is over.” That conclusion was eventually published in Slave in a Box in 1998. Now, in June 2020, the parent company of Quaker Oats has announced that after more than 130 years, it is discontinuing the brand name.

I never would have conceived that it would only take a quarter century to put one of the longest-running and most successful advertising and marketing campaigns to an end. I couldn’t have imagined that a policeman’s killing of a subdued suspect in Minneapolis would set off this chain of events. And I certainly would never have thought that Aunt Jemima’s owners would meekly surrender her rather than sell her to another master.

Or perhaps I was right; maybe 25 years is a long time. That’s 13 years longer than Tamir Rice (2002-2014) lived before he was slain by police in a Cleveland, Ohio, park. It’s only about eight years more than Travyon Martin (1995-2012) was alive before an oafish, self-appointed neighborhood watchman killed him for no apparent reason. And it’s only a year less than Breonna Taylor (1993-2020) dwelt on Earth before Louisville police barged into her home and shot her dead. I could go on. You get the picture.

What happened so quickly in 2020? Back in the 1990s, I wrote, “… Aunt Jemima remains a touchstone for social relations in the United States. … it will be important for her to be a black woman only as long as racism and sexism maintain their persuasive appeal among consumers. …  Her historical baggage is exactly what makes her effective.” While I am not declaring that we have now seen the end of racism and sexism in advertising, something is changing in 2020. We are not ceaselessly rowing against the current, into the past.

Aunt Jemima was always an insult to African-Americans in a broad way and to white women in a very specific one. Her story in the ads explicitly glorified slavery and invited the target consumer to imagine herself in a very different class relationship rooted in the plantations of the antebellum South. That Aunt Jemima was an insult to African-Americans is not a supposition or an opinion, but an historical fact. African-Americans said so in letters to Quaker Oats and in editorials. Now, finally, she has become enough of an embarrassment to white people that her owners are embarrassed, too.

The events of 2020 demonstrate that the efforts by advertisers in 1989 to break with the past by changing Aunt Jemima’s appearance – getting rid of the head rag, slimming her down, making her a “black working grandmother” – did not rid her of her historical baggage. Her historical baggage was still the value of her brand, not her precise appearance. The Quaker Oats Company finally admitted that in 2020. “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,” the company’s chief marketing officer said in a press release. People told them this in 1989; 30 years seems like a long time to learn this lesson.

Now her brand, which has been sold and licensed to other companies for millions of dollars over the years, is worth nothing, perhaps is even of negative value. She has been removed from the marketplace (the same day as Uncle Ben), and she can’t be sold again. The old Aunt Jemima ads told elaborate stories about her life and times, augmented with specific, real places and events in American history and masterful, full-color illustrations. But there is no story about the end of her life, at least no fictional one. She hasn’t been freed to become something else; becoming a former slave wasn’t enough to save her three decades ago. She simply will disappear from supermarket shelves. The products that bore her brand will carry some other name, and the maker of those products can only hope that everyone forgets as soon as possible.

But it is useful in 2020 to remember how we can be manipulated at the expense of others. In the introduction to Slave in a Box, I wrote about the hidden motivations behind things like elephant jokes and compared Aunt Jemima to a long-running joke with a secret meaning. We shouldn’t forget how history and memory can be used to shape our perceptions and our actions, even if this particular joke is over now.

M.M. Manring, Columbus, OH

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