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On Aunt Jemima

On Aunt Jemima

Whenever I tell people that my research centers on domestic workers I am always asked my thoughts on (and by this I mean compelled to think and write about) the mammy figure. I’m not really interested in representation. That’s been done. Over and over. Not to mention domestic workers are real to me. They are people in my family. They live and work in my community. They are definitely not mammy.

But even mammy has a history. She is a cultural worker. Hattie McDaniel, award winning portrayer of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, said something to the effect that she would rather get paid a lot of money to play a domestic worker than get paid pennies to really be one. Not to mention Mammy figures are beloved in the American imagination. I’ve seen and written about Gone With the Wind. Though it was uncomfortable, McDaniel’s performance is incredible. Dare I say moving? It demonstrates the power of black performance. Even more so, because she does it amidst black protest and uncompromising racism.

Which brings me to Aunt Jemima. She, too, is more than a face on a pancake box. She is a woman on my family tree. Her name is Edith Wilson. And she was the radio voice and face of Aunt Jemima for twenty years. She is pictured here. And looks, eerily, a lot like me. So, I cannot call her a mammy. She was also a cultural worker. She was a jazz singer, actress, performer. She advocated for other performers. Langston Hughes once said that she was one of the women that he most admired. And yet, others called her mammy. They hated her for what she represented. And while I recognize the complexities, my familial connection to her makes it difficult for me to participate in an objective and nuanced analysis. This is something that happens often as I approach my research. But that’s a blog for another day.

You will notice that she looks nothing like the woman on your pancake box. That honor goes to the woman who preceded her, Anna S. Harrington. In 1937, Quaker Oats trademarked her likeness. Just in cased you missed that, they trademarked a person. As in, your face belongs to us.

And now her great-grandchildren are suing Quaker Oats (now owned by PepsiCo) for their piece of the royalties. To which I say, good for them. She is a real person. Not a cartoon character. She was an employee. More than an employee really. And she deserves this.

I could see how people would be critical of the amount of money they are asking for. But I’m not concerned about that. I understand the impetus behind the suit. The feeling of your family history being commodified and treated like fiction to everyone who walks down the breakfast aisle. I will be very interested to see what comes of this. But in the mean time, these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor.

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About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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