“She’s Liberated!“: Betye Saar Responds to Retirement of Aunt Jemima Brand

The 131-year-old breakfast brand coopted the likeness of Nancy Green, an enslaved woman, to make pancakes as a racist marketing gimmick.

Rose SharpJune 18, 2020

Aunt Jemima syrup (via Mike Mozart/Flickr)

As protests against state-sanctioned police violence and institutionalized racism continue in cities throughout the US and beyond, major brands have been taking a hard look at their optics — particularly the continued use of logos and branding based in racist iconography or ideology. This week, Quaker Oats — a subsidiary of PepsiCo — announced their decision to retire the name and branding imagery on their line of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup products.

“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,” said Kristin Kroepfl of Quaker Foods North America, quoted in MarketWatch. “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype. While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”

Brand updates on the 131-year-old breakfast brand include a departure from the original marketing, which included hiring Nancy Green, an enslaved woman from Civil War-era Mount Sterling, to make pancakes as a racist marketing gimmick. Green would continue to serve as the face of the brand for the next 100 years. These and other details about the brand’s origins were laid out on TikTok by @singkirbysing, in a video that went viral and prompted the brand’s long-overdue image overhaul.

“Black lives matter, people,” said Kirby, “even over breakfast.” The TikTok has nearly 2 million views.

Kirby is not the first creative professional to question the pervasive stereotyping reinforced by the Aunt Jemima branding; multi-media artist Betye Saar has famously engaged with artifacts and imagery from the brand’s history for decades.

Saar weighed in on the critical change on Instagram, as well as in a statement released through the Los Angeles-based gallery Roberts Projects.

Betye Saar, “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” (2014). Mixed media assemblage. All images courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.

“My artistic practice has always been the lens through which I have seen and moved through the world around me. It continues to be an arena and medium for political protest and social activism,” said Saar in her statement. She continued:

I created The Liberation of Aunt Jemima in 1972 for the exhibition “Black Heroes” at the Rainbow Sign Cultural Center, Berkeley, CA (1972). The show was organized around community responses to the 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. This work allowed me to channel my righteous anger at not only the great loss of MLK Jr, but at the lack of representation of black artists, especially black women artists. I transformed the derogatory image of Aunt Jemima into a female warrior figure, fighting for Black liberation and women’s rights. Fifty years later she has finally been liberated herself. And, yet more work still needs to be done.

Betye Saar, “Liberate (25 mammies)” (2015). Mixed media assemblage.

Of course, detractors are quick to point out that the willingness of corporations to alter their optics to no longer perpetuate the absolute worst racist stereotypes is a superficial move when not supported by material support for antiracist efforts. It must be backed with augmenting corporate hiring practice to create work environments that foster real representation, support, and promotion of Black voices — not to mention the overhauling social forces of mass incarceration, police violence, and uneven treatment within the justice system that need to change in order to truly foster a climate of racial equity. However, artists can agree about the power of symbols, and it feels like a positive change to see Aunt Jemima’s terribly outre and racist stylings expelled.

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