Removal of Aunt Jemima brand is ‘long overdue,’ VCU history professor says

Gregory Smithers is co-author of the 2015 book “Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito.”

The Quaker Oats Co. announced Wednesday that it was removing the image of Aunt Jemima from its packaging and changing the name of the 131-year-old brand, recognizing that it is based on a racist stereotype.

Gregory D. Smithers, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Iowa State University history professor Brian D. Behnken, Ph.D., co-authored the 2015 book, “Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito.”

The book examines how the media — including advertising, motion pictures, cartoons and popular fiction — has used racist images and stereotypes as marketing tools that malign and debase African Americans, Latinos, American Indians and Asian Americans in the United States.

Smithers said the demise of Aunt Jemima is “long overdue.”

“Since 1889, Aunt Jemima products have filled grocery store shelves. A market creation of the early years of Jim Crow segregation, Aunt Jemima borrowed from popular caricatures of the  ‘Mammy’ and the ‘black face’ tradition of American minstrelsy.

“In the decades after the American Civil War, the market industry emerged in its modern form. As American companies looked to expand their market reach and stamp their imperialist footprints throughout the world, the marketing of racism became wildly profitable,” Smithers said.

“Marketing agents borrowed promiscuously from racist tropes. The Lost Cause mythology, a staple of both the South as much as it was popular in the North and West, was fast emerging as the popularly accepted interpretation of slavery and the Civil War.

“That narrative presented audiences with a version of the past in which ‘happy slaves’ toiled cheerfully on plantations for kindly masters and temperate overseers.

“In this narrative, white Americans convinced themselves that the loyal ‘Mammy’ character toiled willingly for patrician white families, upholding the ideals of the gentler, more orderly plantation South,” Smithers said.

“All of this was utter myth; the creation of white imaginations and a neat narrative that helped to explain away the fact that the South fought a war to not only preserve, but expand, racial slavery.

“Aunt Jemima soothed white Americans while her image reassured them of their ongoing privilege and racial superiority.

“By the early 20th century, the Aunt Jemima caricature was embedded in American popular and consumer culture. The marketing industry made this possible; so too did the architects of the  ‘New South’ and America’s industrial, and transnational, economy. With economic growth and development prized over all else during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it seemed both unimportant and completely logical to white Americans that caricatures of African Americans (and other racial and ethnic groups) would market everything from food to children’s toys.

“Black Americans never passively accepted such racism. The NAACP rejected it in the early 20th century. Martin Luther King Jr., rejected it in the 1950s and 1960s. And today, black Americans and their allies have again rejected it,” Smithers said.

“The ‘Mammy’ imagery — and all racist imagery, for that matter — should have been retired long ago. Today’s decision to retire Aunt Jemima is long overdue.”

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