During the pandemic, I tried my hand at baking, which happened to be around the same time my 5-year-old twins’ obsession with pancakes began. So, I tried making pancakes from scratch. I’d steered clear of baking; raised by my grandparents, using measuring cups while cooking was something I never saw happen in their kitchen. I feared my mismeasuring would make whatever I cooked up horrible, so I just never tried it. And my daughter did have feelings to share after my first batch came out of the buttery pan: “Mommy, these are burnt. They aren’t like the ones I eat from Trader Joe’s.”
For months, pancakes were the only things my twin daughters ate for breakfast. In an attempt to stall the growth of the cavities I knew were forming on my daughters’ teeth from the buttery syrup they doused their pancakes in, I tried to swap out their Aunt Jemima syrup with a more organic agave syrup. Talk about side eye! We now keep a bottle of Aunt Jemima front and center in our fridge. For my daughters, it’s about the taste, the familiarity of the syrup that they love. And in the coming months, the look of our beloved bottle of syrup will change.
The story behind the image of Aunt Jemima, the woman who graced the bottle of syrup, has long been a mystery. It isn’t a story about some Black grandmother who made syrup for her grandchildren. This belief, shared with me by my South Asian partner, is something I never ever considered to be “the” story of Aunt Jemima.
Growing up, we always had a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup in our fridge. From time to time, I’d spike my warm bowl of Cream of Wheat with a little syrup before gobbling it down. But the story of who Aunt Jemima was to the rest of the world was never a conversation my Black, southern grandparents and I ever spoke of. Maybe they didn’t know. Or maybe they were like me and they simply never considered that there was a story worth knowing. Or maybe they, like my wife, misread the smiling face of Aunt Jemima as a happy woman, ready to throw it down in the kitchen (like my grandmother did) in the name of pancakes, happy and awaiting the arrival of her grandkids to make sticky memories with.
Quaker Oats’ favorite syrup, which has changed from time to time but always featured Aunt Jemima’s face, changed their branding and label. In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, Quaker Oats released the following statement: “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.”
I don’t know about the rest of the consumers, but I have some high expectations for the money Quaker Oats committed to donate to the Black community. In late 2020, they announced a commitment of $1 million to uplift and empower Black women and girls and another $400 million to support Black communities, businesses, and increase Black representation at PepsiCo (which bought Quaker Oats for $13.8 billion dollars in 2001). In the summer of 2020, the decision was made to phase out the 131-year run of the Aunt Jemima brand and replace her photo with a red label reading “Pearl Milling Company.”
That money, a weak bandage for a much larger historical and societal issue, is only part of the story Quaker Oats should be trying to tell right now. We need to know more about the legacy of Aunt Jemima and how Black women have carried this country forward over the years. So, who was Aunt Jemima?
The original face of the brand is that of a smiling, headwrap-wearing Black woman by the name of Nancy Green, born a slave in Kentucky in 1834. She moved to Chicago to be a cook and caretaker for the Walkers, a wealthy white family. According to several of her obituaries, it was the Walker children’s stories of her legendary pancakes which landed her on the radar of the Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Company, who was looking for the perfect “mammy” stereotype to represent their brand. In 1893, she became the face of the Aunt Jemima brand, representing the company at the World’s Fair. Afterward, she signed a lifetime contract, which ultimately perpetuated the long-held stereotype of the role of a Black woman, a mother herself and a servant, a caretaker, typically in the kitchen cooking for a white family. Nancy Green’s new job as the first face of Quaker Oats syrup gave her a kind of financial freedom to give back to causes close to her heart: anti-poverty initiatives and her Baptist church. After her untimely death in 1923 at the age of 89 after being hit by a car, the face of the Aunt Jemima brand changed to that of Lillian Richard. Lillian, from Hawkins, Texas, represented the Aunt Jemima brand until 1940. Beyond that, there were ten other Black women who took on the role of being the face of a brand created by two white men in the late 1800’s.
I hope that some of the $400+ million dollars pledged by Quaker Oats goes to acknowledging the legacy and sacrifices these 12 brand ambassadors made over the course of Aunt Jemima’s history. Quaker Oats can build museums and provide stories to grace the inside of history books so that as a country, we will never forget who Aunt Jemima was and what her name meant to America.
But that’s only a starting point. Money only takes us so far when it comes to changing the long-held belief that Black people are somehow “less than.” The issue with the Aunt Jemima brand is that very name — “Aunt Jemima” — and what it stands for. It’s not about having a Black woman on the face of a syrup bottle; it’s about the racist legacy she stands for.
The company needs to be more specific about what they will do and how they will truly rebrand themselves. It’s not only about helping the Black community, or making amends in some way, but it’s about including white (and brown) people into this new conversation which, hopefully, educates and changes racist ideals. Let’s start there, Quaker Oats. And while you’re at it, add some Black voices into the boardroom — and then truly listen.
At least now we all know the story behind who Aunt Jemima was, and can understand why the syrup’s image is long overdue for a rebrand. This is a story we can share with our children and their children, continuing to educate them about whose legacy needs to be shared. We can share the stories of the 12 Aunt Jemima ambassadors and what mark they left on society. I hope Quaker Oats will be the ones leading the way in commemorating that legacy for years to come.
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