In our recent articles in an ongoing series about Equality in America, topics addressed included the removal of Mrs. Butterworth, the question was raised whether the effort to sanitize brands, in terms of Black imagery, is just the first step toward the erasure of Black culture and heritage in America. (See “Bye-Bye Aunt Jemima: Quaker Kills Longtime Pancake Mix and Syrup Mascot” and “Mrs. Butterworth, Uncle Ben, Cream Of Wheat Chef All 86ed As Racist” )
It turns out, Larnell Evans Sr’s, whose great-grandmother acted as the Aunt Jemima character spokesperson for over two decades, leans more toward considering these actions of food manufacturers as erasure than anything else.
Evans, a 66-year-old Marine veteran residing in North Carolina, did not mince words about his feelings:
“This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history, sir…The racism they talk about, using images from slavery, that comes from the other side — white people. This company profits off images of our slavery. And their answer is to erase my great-grandmother’s history. A black female… It hurts.”
We said it before he did, but Mr. Evans is in a better position to ascertain fact, being the scion of Anna Short Harrington, a Black woman who was hired by the Quaker Oats Company in 1935, after being discovered cooking up pancakes at the 1935 New York State Fair.
Mrs. Harrington was a traveling brand promoter, a job still popular today, especially with young women who’ve just finished university, looking for work.
She was the third “Aunt Jemima” actress, chronologically speaking.
Mr. Evans is not ashamed, but rather proud of his family’s part in American history. He considers this move Black erasure, plain and simple:
“This woman served all those people, and it was after slavery. She worked as Aunt Jemima. That was her job. How do you think I feel as a black man sitting here telling you about my family history they’re trying to erase?”
Evans and other family members attempted to secure a judgement in their favor, in a case against Quaker Oats claiming that the company owed back-royalties, but it was to no avail.
Evans feels that rather than wipe clean the slate of history, a more appropriate action would be restitution by “white corporations” that profited by the use of Black product mascots:
“How many white people were raised looking at characters like Aunt Jemima at breakfast every morning? How many white corporations made all them profits, and didn’t give us a dime? I think they should have to look at it. They can’t just wipe it out while we still suffer.”
“After making all that money —and now’s the time when black people are saying we want restitution for slavery — they’re just going to erase history like it didn’t happen? … They’re not going to give us nothing? What gives them the right?”
Black people in the United States, especially in the Jim Crow South, often served as domestic help before the mid 1960s Civil Rights movement and passage of landmark legislation by President Johnson ending Segregation.
As so many Black members of society served in a domestic capacity at the time, erasing all references to Black men and women in that role will inevitably strip our history of references to Black people. Are we trying to sanitize American history, to sweep slavery and segregation under the rug, as it were? This is part of Black history. It’s part of American history.
What is the real motivation here? Why are corporations ditching longtime brands and associated imagery? Is it because of fear of a backlash against products that may be deemed culturally insensitive by the masses, or have these corporate board members done some serious soul searching and collectively decided that Black product mascots were immoral?
Probably, it’s all about the bottom line, and trying to keep from becoming a boycotted product. “Profits first,” and then all else shall follow. In a time when social media and “cancel culture” can sink anyone — or anything — corporate bigwigs probably decided better safe than sorry.
This makes sense from an economic standpoint; why risk alienation of a bestselling brand? Why not jump on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon and capitalize on social justice reform?
Just one question, though: Is it sincere?
Of course, Quaker Oats owner Pepsico is donating nearly a half billion dollars to “to lift up black communities and increase black representation at PepsiCo,” so that speaks volumes.
Perhaps canning Aunt Jemima shouldn’t have been part of that equation, however.
And, Mrs. Butterworth, poor Mrs Butterworth. Soon she’ll also be but a memory. All because a buxom bottle evokes the Black “mammy” stereotype. Mrs. Butterworth isn’t even Black! Does that mean that any matronly character evokes the “mammy” meme? Are Black women, then, no longer permitted to be matronly? Or to enjoy cooking, for that matter?
What about other brands referencing other ethnicities and races, sold by a variety of companies? Should be be comfortable with those?
Taco Bell once used “Run for the border!” as its tag-line; there’s no way that isn’t clearly degrading to Mexican people. Of course, that’s not nearly as bad as the “Frito Bandito,” Frito-Lays’ long-retired brand mascot for the Fritos corn snack. It’s cringe-worthy!
What about Trader Joe’s, the fresh foods supermarket chain? When the store sells an Italian food product, the label reads “Trader Giotto” and when it’s Mexican fare, it’s “Trader Jose.” That seems a bit strange. Definitely patronizing.
There are plenty of other examples of racially insensitive stereotypes in our culture.
The NFL’s Washington Redskins. Miss Chiquita. The pizza guy and Fat Tony on the Simpsons. And so many more.
Are Mario and Luigi out of step? Will these beloved video game characters end up gone, too?
The Port Richmond High School Red Raiders athletic teams have already became the Raiders. The St. John’s Redmen are now the Red Storm, changed in 1994.
But who can complain?
We may end up with a very different culture, if we pursue this line of thinking to its logical end. But maybe that’s okay.
The key question is whether these racial and ethnic stereotypes are degrading, mocking, or offensive.
Should we be offended by ideas that have endured from a time when thinking was different?
Were they just meant to be mean, created with a spark of malice and hate?
Or, was it unintentional, vestiges of a culture that has quietly shifted to a more considerate and mutually respectful place? Out of step now, only because we’re a more compassionate America?
These are all important questions we must grapple with.
Either way, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth are going off the shelves soon, and not everyone likes the idea.
Larnell Evans, Sr. certainly doesn’t, as he obviously feels Mrs. Butterworth is a vital part of Americana, our lore and popular culture.
Personally, I am happy to see them gone. But more for other reasons. Just two fewer over-hyped and over-processed brands gone.
Buy real maple syrup, America! These giant brands are way overpriced! You’re paying for all that advertising and promotion, you know. Instead, pay for what’s inside the package.
Already, we’re becoming smarter shoppers. I just hate seeing people paying for garbage with EBT; that money can stretch more if big brands are avoided.
We have freedom of speech and expression. It’s not a matter of whether we can have such stereotyped mascots and products, it’s a question of whether we should.
But if we’re going to address African-American stereotypes in media and branding, it’s only fair that we address all stereotypes.
Maybe it’s good we’re having this discussion now. Media shapes minds, and the process should be done with forethought and understanding of what the effects might be.
Repeating a stereotype can work to reinforce its meaning. That much is true.
Even so, we should discard out history with care and judiciousness. If we destroy all references to Black people as servants and cooks and laborers, we’re going to shred a good amount of our collective history, as many older shows and movies might feature such a Black character, even if not a main part of the story.
Black erasure, and the erasure of our past, will be the result if we get carried away with this.
It might end up seeming to young people like Black folks had no part in shaping our Nation. And, that’s just wrong.
I’ll leave it at that.