The Liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar - A Reflection on its Legacy

Artwork(s) In Focus, Art News, Art History

June 23, 2020

As protests against police brutality and racism continue in cities throughout the US and beyond, we’re suddenly witnessing a remarkable social awakening and resolve to remove from public view the material reminders of a dishonorable past pertaining to Peoples of Color. We have seen dismantling of confederate monuments and statues commemorating both colonialism and the suppression of indigenous peoples, and now, brands began looking closely at their branding.

Among them is Quaker Oats, who announced their decision to retire Aunt Jemima, its highly problematic Black female character and brand, from its pancake mix and syrup lines.

“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 for 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.

Aunt Jemima Pancake Syrup by Quaker Oats. Image by Mike Mozart via Flickr

The History Behind Aunt Jemima

The Aunt Jemima brand has long received criticism due to its logo that features a smiling black woman on its products, perpetuating a "mammy" stereotype. Depicting a black woman as pleased and content while serving white masters, the "mammy" caricature is rooted in racism as it acted to uphold the idea of slavery as a benevolent institution.

The brand was created in 1889 by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood, two white men, to market their ready-made pancake flour. According to the African American Registry, Rutt got the idea for the name and log after watching a vaudeville show in which the performer sang a song called Aunt Jemima in an apron, head bandana and blackface. After the company was sold to the R.T. David Milling Co. in 1890, the new owners tried to find someone to be a living trademark for the company.

It was Nancy Green that soon became the face of the product, a story teller, cook and missionary who was born a slave in Kentucky. The company was bought by Quaker Oats Co. in 1925, who trademarked the logo and made it the longest running trademark in the history of American advertising. Over the course of brand's history, different women represented the character of Aunt Jemima, including Aylene Lewis, Anna Robinson and Lou Blanchard.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar

First becoming an artist at the age of 46, Betye Saar is best known for art of strong social and political content that challenge racial and sexist stereotypes deeply rooted in American culture while simultaneously paying tribute to her textured heritage (African, Native American, Irish and Creole).

In 1972, Betye Saar received an open call to black artists to participate in the show Black Heroes at the Rainbow Sign, a community center in Berkeley, organized around community responses to the 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. For the show, Saar created The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, featuring a small box containing an "Aunt Jemima" mammy figure wielding a gun. This overtly political assemblage voiced the artist's outrage at the repression of the black people in America.

Going through flea markets and garage sales across Southern California, the artist had been collecting racist imagery for some time already. The particular figurine of Aunt Jemima that she used for her assemblage was originally sold as a notepad and pencil holder for jotting notes of grocery lists. Instead of a pencil, the artist placed a gun into the figurine's hand, and the grenade in the other, providing her with power. Instead of a notebook, Saar placed a vintage postcard into her skirt, showing a black woman holding a mixed race child, representing the sexual assault and subjugation of black female slaves by white men. She collaged a raised fist over the postcard, invoking the symbol for black power. The object was then placed against a wallpaper of pancake labels featuring their poster figure, Aunt Jemima.

Saar has stated, that "the reasoning behind this decision is to empower black women and not let the narrative of a white person determine how a black women should view herself".

I used the derogatory image to empower the black woman by making her a revolutionary, like she was rebelling against her past enslavement.

  Editors’ Tip: Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito (Racism in American Institutions) by Brian D. Behnken and Gregory D. Smithers  

Authors Brian D. Behnken and Gregory D. Smithers examine the popular media from the late 19th century through the 20th century to the early 21st century. This broad coverage enables readers to see how depictions of people of color, such as Aunt Jemima, have been consistently stereotyped back to the 1880s and to grasp how those depictions have changed over time. The book's chapters explore racism in the popular fiction, advertising, motion pictures, and cartoons of the United States, and examine the multiple groups and people affected by this racism, including African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, and American Indians. Attention is also paid to the efforts of minorities―particularly civil rights activists―in challenging and combating racism in the popular media.

A Work That Launched a Movement

After it was shown, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima by Betye Saar received a great critical response. It soon became both Saar's most iconic piece and a symbols of black liberation and power and radical feminist art. When it was included in the exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007, the activist and academic Angela Davis credited it as the work that launched the black women's movement.

Now in the collection at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima continues to serve as a warrior to combat bigotry and racism and inspire and ignite the revolutionary spirit.

As the critic James Cristen Steward stated in Betye Saar: Extending the Frozen Monument, the work addresses "two representations of black women, how stereotypes portray them, defeminizing and desexualizing them and reality. Saar's intention for having the stereotype of the mammy holding a rifle to symbolize that black women are strong and can endure anything, a representation of a warrior."

Saar commented on the Quaker Oats' critical change on Instagram, as well as in a statement released through the Los Angeles-based gallery Roberts Projects. The artist wrote:

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. 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.

Featured image: Betye Saar - The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Mixed media assemblage, 11.75 x 8 x 2.75 in (29.8 x 20.3 x 7.0 cm). Collection of the Berkeley Art Museum; purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (selected by The Committee for the Acquisition of Afro-American Art). Courtesy Roberts Proejcts.

Follow These Artists

Betye Saar