Your Tasty Aunt Jemima Breakfast Is Built On The Exploitation Of Two Dead Women

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aunt jemima syrup bottleDid you know that the beatifically smiling woman on your box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix may have been based on a real person? The descendents of two women who played the role of Aunt Jemima in the early days of the Pearl Milling Company are suing for a share of a century’s worth of pancake and syrup sales. I don’t know whether these families have a case or not, but I do know that there’s something seriously messed up about selling breakfast food using romanticized imagery of happy, cheerful slave women.

The image of Aunt Jemima that currently graces the brand’s labels has been relieved of her kerchief and modernized a bit with earrings and a bob, but the character was originally played by both a former slave and a daughter of sharecroppers as the embodiment of “mammy” stereotypes. Nancy Green and Anna Harrington, who may have been involved in the creation or improvement of the original mix recipe, were both poor and uneducated, and probably had neither the background nor the position in which to negotiate with the Pearl Milling Company when they were asked to step into the character – Green starting in 1890, shortly after the company’s founding, and Harrington after Quaker Oats acquired the Aunt Jemima brand in the 1930s.

The families of these women contend that there were contracts promising Green and Harrington a share of the company’s profits, which Quaker Oats is disputing. I don’t know whether any such contract exists, but it’s hard to argue that the company continued to build its legacy on the back on idealized imagery of the life Green, a former house slave, really would have led. Even the name “Aunt Jemima” is, according to legend, something the company’s founders picked up from a blackface minstrel show song about a mammy. Isn’t this an era of history best relegated to history books and not product placement? This isn’t “Washington football team” levels of embarrassing, but it is embarrassing nonetheless.

I don’t know whether these families’ lawsuit has enough merit to stand up in court, but I know that even without a lawsuit, I’m not cool with giving my money to a company that continued to market its products with a beaming mammy figure into the 1980s, and which, when asked about the lawsuit, said:

“The image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth, hospitality and comfort and is neither based on, nor meant to depict any one person. While we cannot discuss the details of pending litigation, we do not believe there is any merit to this lawsuit.”

Nothing says “caring, warmth, hospitality, and comfort” like the image of a woman who has to serve you for fearing of being whipped if she refuses. Whatever happens with this lawsuit, we’ll be staying a Bisquick (or rather, a store-brand Bisquick) family for the foreseeable future.

(Photo: littleny / Shutterstock)