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Politics

Michigan’s Jim Crow Museum charts the racist history of Aunt Jemima

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The Aunt Jemima brand announced on Wednesday that it will change its name and logo, acknowledging the origins of the image in a racist stereotype.

Cyndi Tiedt is with the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids. She sat down with Ben Thorp to talk about the history of the Aunt Jemima brand and its roots in slavery.

Tiedt: The objects that we collect reflect the attitudes that really shaped American history. Aunt Jemima is based on the mammy caricature. The mammy caricature is meant to represent wholesomeness. Aunt Jemima is one of the most commercially successful expressions of that caricature. It’s really perpetuating the narrative of the servitude of Black women. Being a slavery-era caricature it’s likening the mammy to the happy slave or the faithful slave. A very docile kind of character.

Thorp: Can you talk about how long this image has persisted, particularly with this brand?

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Aunt Jemima imagery featured at the Jim Crow Museum in Big Rapids

Tiedt: The mammy caricature has its origins during enslavement. The mammy as well as the Tom, which is the male version of the mammy, perpetuates this idea of servitude, faithfulness, of being loyal to the white family. The mammy caricature and Aunt Jemima brand specifically has its origin in the 1880s when Charles Rutt developed a self-rising flour mix and called it Aunt Jemima’s recipe. He took it from a minstrel show that he saw. The minstrel characters were performing a song called “Old Aunt Jemima.” He chose this image and name because, he believed, the image of a mammy would help sell the product.

The first real-life portrayal of Aunt Jemima was Nancy Green. Green was born as an enslaved person in Kentucky in 1834. She was brought onto the brand and her role was to impersonate a mammy. When you think about that and all the mammy represents you are having a Black woman portraying a stereotype about Black women.

Her role was to sing songs and cook pancakes and tell romanticized stories about the old south. Her stories were presenting her character, the mammy Aunt Jemima, as this happy slave.

Thorp: And for listeners who don’t know that happy slave character is about taking away the blunt horror of slavery.

Tiedt: That’s correct. It’s used really to justify the sexual assault of Black women. If we look at the imagery of the mammy she is de-sexualized, she is a large woman. It was really perpetuated to support the institution of slavery but to also address the sexual assault of Black women by white men during this time.

Thorp: There have been calls to remove this imagery for a long time, at least back to the 1980s. I wonder what you think of this moment that we’re living in now and why it’s being changed?

Tiedt: I think what we’re seeing at the moment I see a lot of similarities with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. We really need to have a sustained conversation about the history of race in this country and race relations today because it really influences the issues we are seeing today.

Thorp: Can you talk about how many kinds of images there are that we think are innocuous but are really carried over and carry these ideas about slavery with them?

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The Jim Crow Museum's "Kitchen" exhibit

Tiedt: In our museum, we have about 15,000 objects in our collection. We actually receive donations every single day. These objects are still very much out in the world.

I think most of us if we are confronted with a very explicit or racist image or message there’s not a lot of conversation that can go on there. Most of us are aware that it is inappropriate or that is a racist comment or idea. The interesting thing with objects we have such as the mammy or Aunt Jemima is they are more subtle. I still see a lot of the caricatures that we deal with in the museum today in TV shows, movies, particularly in social media on different memes. These ideas and the imagery is still being perpetuated today and I think that’s where the real danger is. It’s still doing damage. It’s still shaping people’s attitudes towards Black people.

Thorp: What do you say to someone who is maybe surprised or confused by the news that this is being taken down, who looks at it and says wait I didn’t realize this had a racist history to it?

Tiedt: Being Americans we have all inherited the legacy of Jim Crow. We have inherited it in different ways but we all have a responsibility to learn and listen. Understand that these objects represent different histories for different people and we should all be cognizant of that shared history we have.

Thorp: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Tiedt: No problem, thanks for having me.