Since her “retirement” was announced two days before Juneteenth — in the middle of a deeply American season of racial reassessment and social change — the loss of Aunt Jemima caused a typically American furor. The comments on social media ranged from outright rage that political correctness had invaded the already socially distant grocery store to remarks suggesting that liberals had shot themselves in the foot by diminishing the diversity of positive mascots on store shelves.
The latter sentiment is what cut me the deepest — especially when expressed by those who said how their perception of Black people had been positively shaped by seeing Aunt Jemima’s visage. As pleasant and formative an experience as the memory of this particular brand mascot might be for some white people, it’s also the root of the problem.
The character of Aunt Jemima is an invitation to white people to indulge in a fantasy of enslaved people — and by extension, all of Black America — as submissive, self-effacing, loyal, pacified and pacifying. It positions Black people as boxed in, prepackaged and ready to satisfy; it’s the problem of all consumption, only laced with racial overtones.
Most of those bemoaning the loss of “Auntie” today wouldn’t have discovered her the way that earlier generations did, as cut-out dolls from the box of pancake mix. Nancy Green, the real Kentucky woman born into enslavement in 1834 who became the model for the original Aunt Jemima on the box, first had her appearance corrupted for the branding and then transformed into an antebellum toy for white children. Her heartbreakingly sincere appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 assuaged any remnants of post-bellum rage at Black people by telling stories and cooking up the original Aunt Jemima pancake mix — a little wheat, a little corn and a lot of nostalgia for something that never was.
Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and “Rastus,” the Cream of Wheat man, were actually meant to be stand-ins for what white people viewed as a generation of formerly enslaved Black cooks now lost to them. As mascots, they were designed to be perceived by those white people as nothing more — and to have wanted to be nothing more — than loyal servants, in a frightening time of growing Black equality and empowerment.