Among conversations I had two weeks ago during a session where Jim and I poured through some of my 30 year old poetry was a quick detour to google the soon-to-disappear figure of Aunt Jemima. Wikipedia offered us a fairly thorough history of the advertising beauty based on once easily accepted stereotypes. She was not alone, as it turns out, she had a family and— to add cringe to insult, stories followed her and her family which depicted her as the loyal cook for a Colonel on a plantation on the Mississippi River. All fiction based on reality in order to market and sell breakfast products. I’m not making this up. It’s on Wikipedia.
The origins of this character are part of history whether “we” remove the image of her from boxes and bottles being produced today for grocery stores across America.
That’s part of what I read when researching. That in 2020 the company that makes and distributes the pancake brand goods, Quaker Oats, announced they are rebranding this product line. I heave a sigh, and think to myself that this is a good thing. Another baby step in the right direction.
The acknowledgement is a good step, though it doesn’t take a genius to surmise that it should have been done a long time ago. It’s 2020 people!! I pay no mind when I’m at the grocery because I typically go for generic “Great Value” stuff. I had no idea this advertising slogan has survived so many decades without question.
Playing devils advocate though, this change doesn’t change much. A gesture really. For show? For press? To boost pancake sales? Or perhaps a feeble attempt to sweep more of our shameful past into a dust bin? Announce it, make the branding change, and then never speak of it again.
Directly pasting from the wiki article (admittedly without verification) .. “Descendants of Aunt Jemima models Lillian Richard and Anna Short Harrington objected to the change. Vera Harris, a family historian for Richard’s family, said “I wish we would take a breath and not just get rid of everything. Because good or bad, it is our history.” Harrington’s great-grandson Larnell Evans said “This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history.” Evans lost a lawsuit against Quaker Oats (and others) for billions of dollars in 2015.”
We can’t just remove branding and statues and call it a day when so much injustice persists. But what can we do?
I don’t have the answer. I’m just generally asking. Reading that article and others recently has been eye opening. I’m sometimes an ignorant person when it comes to history which is not an excuse but I didn’t even know about the enslaved “Mammy” archetype. And I still wouldn’t, had I not been perusing my childhood poetry where I uncovered what I thought was treasure. A poem about said character, among others, engaged in battle for humankind. I know, so dramatic!
When I read it to Jim, he’s the one who brought up the news about Quaker Oats changing the brand and that’s how we came to be reading about Aunt Jemima on a Friday night.
Like I said, that was A few weeks ago but what spun my brain up again on the topic was a poem in my in box today which is a part of the poem-a-day series: “Distracted from COVID-19, Attention Shifts to MIA Maiden from Land O’Lakes Butter Box” by Tiffany Midge.
It reads like an Ode, but slant, so the reader can squeeze their thoughts around the implications the author is suggesting. I mean, we all have our own interpretation based on our knowledge and experience and now that I’m a little more mindful, the poem reveals more of itself to me. And then, in the last few lines provides the reader with a solid punch to the gut.
It’s a fine poem and one I can’t flip with, so instead, I’ll pay my own respects by sharing the poem I wrote roughly between the years of 1988 and 1990 where the exact date could probably be pinpointed if I had time or inclination to search through the journal entries where most of my childhood poems originated. Remember, I was just a child. I still am, at heart. But it’s a part of my history. In the “story” Aunt Jemima is the hero and Mrs. Butterworth is the villain.
So there I was cornered in my own kitchen
By that little glass witch, she was really bitchin
She was about to slash me with her ninja star waffles
I didn’t know what to do, it was horribly awful.
When out of the cupboard came an awesome sound
She shouted “Drop ‘em Butterworth” as she came around
It was my sweet Aunt Jemima with her fluffy hot cakes
She came to my rescue with her muffins and her flakes.
That’s the day when Jemima saved the world
Not just me but all the boys and girls
Because that Mrs. Butterworth, she was the leader of the group
Along with the Green Giant and the kids from Campbells soup.
They were filling a plot against the Wells Blue Bunny
And they wouldn’t give up and it wasn’t very funny
But now they are all inside the fridge just in time
Thanks to that dear sweet lady Aunt Jemima.
It’s definitely a trip to travel back in time and read some of this silliness, but it’s also nice to close up those notebooks and put them back in the bin on a shelf in my closet.
Someday, I may post “Seven Silly Slime Slugs” which is, to this day still one of my all time favorites. Jim calls it very “Seussian.” Who am I to disagree??
That’s it folks. Time now to take on taco Tuesday. Hope it’s a good one.