In 1889, the world’s first “self rising pancake flour” hit the market. Now we call it ready made pancake mix of course. to distinguish their mix, the owners appropriated the Aunt Jemima name and image from a lithograph in a vaudeville theater in Missouri. This would go on to become one of the most recognizable brands in history. That all is going to change however. Because of that, it is worth looking at the actual history of the brand.
The mammy archetype is rooted in the Civil War era of the United States depicting a content, if not happy, African American woman who was tasked with domestic work in white households. The image rose to prominence in the reconstruction era as part of the effort of historic revisionism that reinterpreted and legitimized the reality of chattel slavery in the United States. The origins of “Mammy” are firmly entrenched in slavery. There is no denying that.
In 1923, The United Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to have a Mammy statue erected in the National Mall. This group is a neo-confederate movement that promotes The Lost Cause movement. It’s ok if you meed to look some of that up. In researching this, I had to. Until recently, they helped with efforts to build monuments commemorating the KKK, and in Jim Crow south, they were firmly aligned with them. The whole point of this group is to distort the truth about American chattel slavery and to rewrite history with a romanticized view of the south instead of the truth. They wanted to use Mammy to help do it. Again, we find Mammy firmly entrenched in racism.
Back to our Aunt Jemima brand. In 1894, paper dolls were added to the box that could be cut out featuring Aunt Jemima and Uncle and Uncle Rastus, which is in and of itself a whole other racist stereotype, and some children. They were pictured dancing barefoot in tattered clothes. Another box would have elegant outfits for them. The first box was labeled as before sold and the second box with the nice clothes was labeled after sold. Uncle Rastus was introduced as a plantation owner and even the aunt and uncle name were used because slaves were denied the use of courtesy titles. Even the “aunt” and “uncle” is derived from racist language and treatment toward African Americans. In 1909, the paper dolls evolved into rag dolls which featured large mouths missing teeth, and patched clothes. By 1950 they evolved into large eyed and watermelon mouthed caricatures. All of these things combined with singing old plantation songs, the dancing and the slave dialect point back to the antebellum south myths.
The truth is this. The branding was racist when it started, and it continued on being so for decades. Something doesn’t just suddenly become not racist because some time has passed. The imagery, and even the name, and so strongly associated with slavery that there can be no doubts as to it’s origin. It was long past time to change it. The revisionist history that the imagery and name represent need to be relegated to the history books so that we can learn from it and finally stop repeating it. The question that we should be asking is not whether or not there should be re-branding, but why it is that we are so bothered by it.
Now to the real point of this, Nancy Green. She would be the first woman to portray Aunt Jemima. It happened at the worlds fair in 1893. She was indeed a former slave. She was offered a lifetime contract to work, but she did not portray Aunt Jemima for 20 years at the maximum. She would travel the country, often next to the world’s largest flour barrel, cooking pancakes. She would be forced to sing plantation songs, and talk about the mythical antebellum south that was “a happy place for blacks and whites alike”. She would die, hit by a car, in 1923. She worked as a housekeeper until she died. There is a myth that she died one of the first black millionaires, but there is not evidence of this. (source) Her family sued in 2014 claiming that she was never properly compensated, but the case was dismissed.
A lot of people have expressed concern that her legacy might be forgotten, and I am very concerned about that too. In fact, I think her legacy has been forgotten. She was one of the founders of Oliver Baptist church in Chicago, and a philanthropist. She used the money that she made to support antipoverty efforts. She advocated against poverty and for equal rights in Chicago. (source) Her grave is unmarked without a headstone, thought there are some efforts to get one.
I want Nancy Green’s legacy to be remembered. Here is how we do it. We advocate for the poor and marginalized like she did.We make that a priority in our lives. We can honor her legacy that way. We can learn the real history of slavery and the Civil War and stop repeating the lies of neo-confederate revisionists that justify the scourge of slavery. We can make sure that the lost cause of the confederacy finally gets lost for good. We can realize that hers is just one story and one name that we likely would not have heard of or learned about. We should do more learning. Most of all we can figure out that there is a whole lot more to the legacy of Nancy Green, and so many other names that we do not know, than some racist advertising on a syrup bottle.