The Aunt Jemima logo changed slightly over time to appease us, but it’s in our best interest to reject incremental change and fight for radical liberation.
2020 has been the year of the gargantuan paradigm shift. The year of astronomical moves toward progress. The year of a collective Tower moment that completely obliterates the existing, oppressive structures at play and violently makes way for a new world order. The gigantic jump from calls for police reform to abolition is probably the clearest example of this shift and the scales falling from so many of our eyes. But the thing I have found most interesting, as well as fucking hilarious, is the shift in the branding world as they scramble to be accountable to Black customers they previously ignored or tried to placate with wimpy attempts at reform through incremental change.
Which brings me to Quaker Oats.
While Quaker Oats and other companies are making moves in 2020 to remove offensive branding from their merchandise, logos like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, the nigga on the Cream of Wheat boxes, and many others (yes, I am referring to you, Washington R*dskins!) have been a problem for a very long time. From the get-go, such images stemmed from caricatures established during slavery. The Happy Slave. The Mammy. The Docile Negro. And yet, nothing was done or brands engaged in tactical reform that ultimately amounted to… nothing.
Aunt Jemima is probably the most egregious of these examples. Founded in 1889, the character and brand was drawn directly from “The Mammy” archetype and originally depicted a fat dark-skinned Black woman who was wearing a bonnet/scarf and sporting a big-ass smile with white-ass teeth and inspired by the “Old Aunt Jemima Song”, a popular song at minstrel shows. This was all to sell ready-pancake mix to the white masses—which makes sense considering how these audiences previously relied on enslaved Black peoples’ labor for their food.
Of course, as much as brands like Aunt Jemima would like you to believe that no one had an issue with this… that would be an obvious lie. Black scholars like Hallie Quinn Brown, Anna Julia Cooper, and Fannie Barrier Williams immediately denounced such images in 1892 and argued that images like Aunt Jemima (and Uncle Ben and Cream of Wheat’s Rastus… whose name I literally didn’t know until three seconds ago) reinforced “the notion that African Americans were natural servants,” which “reinforced a racist ideology renouncing the reality of African American intellect.” The images were never removed, of course, but as consciousness grew around the depiction of Black people across mass media, so did calls for these racist images to be removed from public canon.
These continued calls should’ve resulted in this aforementioned removal, but instead, like all people in power do, the powers that be behind Aunt Jemima constantly opted for wimpish reforms in the form of updating the logo. Notable updates included the big change in 1968 where they turned her into a skinny Mammy and gave her a headband instead and in 1989 when they removed the headband completely, gave her some jewelry, a couple of gray hairs, and some lace in order to look “sophisticated”, and I guess less racist in the white imagination.
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It is oddly hilarious and stupendously fascinating to me. It is so interesting how The Quaker Oats brand literally opted to do everything but get rid of this racist piece of shit logo for over 100 years until niggas started burning and flipping shit over. Why did it take so long? And why did it come down to this? Well, it’s fairly easy to blame it on the fact that we live in an anti-Black, racist, and capitalist society (because to be fair, everything comes back to anti-Black racism and capitalism). And it’s also easy to blame the fact that people are simply ignorant and don’t know the history or significance of these racist logos, structures, and statues (which is an OK point because of the fact that the American education system purposely obscures history or simply refuses to teach them).
But, in actuality, the whole idea of (Black) people torching these oppressive systems, is, I’m sure, absolutely terrifying to people who seek to uphold whiteness. More than that, this iteration of the movement includes even more people torching the system (notably poor people)—making it clear that this shift in thought is coming from multiple sides. And multiple groups of people who are sick of the status quo.
And you know what? Many of us will walk away from these swift examples of change crediting what is an obvious example of there being power in numbers. Which is completely valid. But a more important lesson that we should all learn is the fact that oppressors will always lie about the possibility of radical change existing. They will always lie about the viability of implementing radical change. They will always lie about the monetary price of implementing radical change. They will always lie about the speed at which they can implement radical change. And they will always lie about the fact that it is incremental change is, in fact, more rational than radical change. Because it is in their best interests to lie, and lie, and lie to maintain the oppressive status quo.
And frankly? It is in our best interests to reject incremental change and to throw ourselves against these oppressive structures until they are toppled. Until they cease to exist. Until radical change happens.
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