Earlier today, Quaker announced that they would be retiring the Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix & syrup. Citing the racist stereotypes utilized by the brand, Quaker stated, “As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations.”
Quaker’s move to pull the brand sparked controversy across the internet. The company decision followed social media outcry, driven by singer Kirby Lauryen’s viral TikTok video on “How to make a non-racist breakfast.” When you look into the history of the brand, it becomes more and more clear that this move should’ve happened a long time ago, despite their decision to continually market and perpetuate stereotypes surrounding black people and slavery.
The brand was founded by Chris Rutt & Charles Underwood in 1889 when they developed the world’s first ready-made pancake mix. The duo elected to name their brand after the song “Old Aunt Jemima” by Billy Kersands. Kersands was a minstrel show performer, a genre of performance that utilized racist stereotypes of African Americans to entertain a white audience.
The business was sold to R.T. Davis, who owned a prominent milling company, in 1890. Davis intended to take the product to the World’s Fair 1893 to promote the product to a wider audience. He hired Nancy Green to promote the product in character as Aunt Jemima, a former plantation slave.
Green herself had been born into slavery on a plantation in Montgomery County, Kentucky in 1834. After the Civil War, she relocated to Chicago in her thirties, where she worked as a housekeeper and nanny for a local judge.
Green’s presentation at the World’s Fair was a hit and sparked massive growth for the company. Subsequently, she was offered a lifetime contract to serve as the spokesperson for the Aunt Jemima brand.
As Aunt Jemima continued to grow throughout the 20th century, the brand did very little to change their marketing strategy. Aunt Jemima’s brand marketing remained harmful, portraying a happy, willful existence during an era of slavery, a dialect of black people with broken english, and consistent imagery in line with mammy stereotypes.
In 1989, the brand began to distance itself from this sort of imagery, adopting a modified brand image that has persisted to this day. While it was visually far less racist, it’s ties to a history of racism remained. In the modern world, it has become increasingly difficult to distance the business from its origin story.
While some people disagree with the decision to pull the products because it will erase the history of Nancy Green, it is important to note that the Aunt Jemima brand has done nothing to highlight her story or the success she found later in life. To this day, her name isn’t even referenced on Aunt Jemima’s website.
Nostalgia has become an increasingly popular marketing technique over the past decade. However, the type of nostalgia utilized by the Aunt Jemima brand draws upon some of the darkest times in American history. It is alarming how long this brand has been able to persist, and the decision to retire it is one that was a long time coming for the Quaker company.
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“From Aunt Jemima to Uncle Ben’s, a Reckoning for Racist Brand Names and Logos.” Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo!, 18 June 2020, finance.yahoo.com/news/from-aunt-jemima-to-uncle-bens-a-reckoning-has-come-for-racist-brand-names-and-logos-181829211.html.
Kesslen, Ben. “Aunt Jemima Brand to Change Name, Remove Image That Quaker Says Is ‘Based on a Racial Stereotype’.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 17 June 2020, www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/aunt-jemima-brand-will-change-name-remove-image-quaker-says-n1231260.