Relatives of the former Aunt Jemima spokeswoman say they are concerned that their family history will be erased with Quaker Oats moving to rebrand the syrup and pancake mix.
“I understand the images that white America portrayed us years ago. They painted themselves Black and they portrayed that as us,” Vera Harris, the great niece of Aunt Jemima actress, Lillian Richard, told NBC News. “I understand what Quaker Oats is doing because I’m Black and I don’t want a negative image promoted, however, I just don’t want her legacy lost, because if her legacy is swept under the rug and washed away, it’s as if she never was a person.”
Richard traveled the country promoting the Quaker Oats brand and portrayed the Aunt Jemima character for more than 20 years. Harris also said that her great aunt was recruited to work for Quaker Oats in the 1920s, during a time when there were “no jobs for Black people, especially Black women.”
“She took the job to make an honest living to support herself, touring around at fairs, cooking demonstrations and events,” Harris said. “When she came back home, they were proud of her and we’re still proud of her.”
The family is speaking out after Quaker Oats announced last week that it would be updating the name and design of its 130-year-old Aunt Jemima brand in recognition of the fact that its “origins are based on a racial stereotype.”
Her character is centuries old, with the first “Aunt Jemima” being introduced at Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893 and was portrayed by Nancy Green, a formerly enslaved woman.
Since then, the brand’s design has changed at least five times, with previous versions including a woman dressed as a minstrel character and wearing a “mammy” kerchief.
Quaker Oats took heed to the global protests calling for racial justice and decided to revamp the brand. Other brands, including Uncle Ben’s and Cream of Wheat, have followed suit.
“The character of Aunt Jemima is an invitation to white people to indulge in a fantasy of enslaved people — and by extension, all of Black America — as submissive, self-effacing, loyal, pacified and pacifying,” culinary historian Michael Twitty wrote in a recent NBC Think essay. “It positions Black people as boxed in, prepackaged and ready to satisfy; it’s the problem of all consumption, only laced with racial overtones.”
Another relative of one of the Aunt Jemima actresses believes the branding should remain the same.
“This comes as a slap in the face,” Larnell Evans Sr., great grandson to Aunt Jemima actress, Anna Short Harrington, said. “She worked 25 years doing it. She improved their product … what they’re trying to do is ludicrous.”
Evans and other members of his family filed a $3 billion lawsuit against Quaker Oats in 2014, arguing that his great-grandma’s estate hadn’t been properly compensated with royalties. A judge dismissed the case the next year.
Quaker Oats said the new packaging will begin to appear in the fall and that a new name will be announced in the future.Want updates directly in your text inbox? Hit us up at 917-722-8057 or click here to join!