It has been some summer.
George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minn., on Memorial Day.
We are now in July. And a lot of things have happened in the wake of his death.
Mm. Mm-hm, mm-hm.
They are mind-blowing to think about.
Is your seat belt on?
I’m buckled up, baby. Let’s go.
Monuments, statues being toppled and brought down.
There is giant Black Lives Matter murals going along the streets all over the country.
Kente scarves being worn by our Congress people.
Rude. Stop reminding me.
We now work at a news organization that is capitalizing the identity Black. No more LEGO police sets for you kids. “Cops” has been canceled, blackface episodes of “30 Rock” and “Community” taken down. The N.F.L., league full of Black people, realizes that Black lives do matter, but never says that Colin Kaepernick does. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben retired. Lady Antebellum and Dixie Chicks are now Lady A and the Chicks?
Don’t forget also, the Washington football team finally — finally — going to have a new name.
I mean, we could talk about each of those items for the rest of our lives. And we probably will. But I just want to dial in on one —
— which is Aunt Jemima, right?
I don’t want to wallpaper over that past because I think that lets the people responsible for that character and that caricature off way too easy. If we just disappear Aunt Jemima, then we’re effectively erasing her, which does not heal that wound. It actually exacerbates it. It just covers it up with a Band-Aid, no bacitracin, you know?
Oh, yeah. Please, we should definitely talk about Aunt Jemima and the pancake mix. Let’s crack some eggs. We’ll get out some water, and we’ll just — we’re going to get right into some stirring.
I’m Jenna Wortham.
I’m Wesley Morris. We’re two culture writers at The New York Times, and recording in our living rooms today during a pandemic, a movement, and apparently a rainstorm.
Y’all gon’ hear it.
This is “Still Processing.”
So Wesley, in mid-June, Quaker makes this announcement — we are going to retire Aunt Jemima. And the two people that are closest to me in my life both send me a text at around the same time, near identical text messages by the way. They contain an image of the pancake box and a text message basically that says, oh, S-H-I-T. And I think they wanted to know, what do I do with the box? And it’s worth noting neither of them are white. But my immediate response back to both of them was, well, how full are the boxes?
Right? I mean, at this point, you might as well finish them. But when you do, can you save me the box?
(LAUGHS) Why do you want the box?
You know, it’s a part of history, right?
And it’s uncomfortable. But it feels really important to remember how America talked about Black people. And I know that you’ve done so much research into the history and the origins of minstrelsy in this country for this mysterious-ass book you’re always working on it, which is why we can’t hang out on the weekends, not that we’d be hanging out that much anyway these days. But it’s helpful. You know a lot.
Yes, that is true. I have been working on a book about, among many other things, the history of Black entertainment for the last 200 years, it feels like at this point.
Well, Mr. Morris, I also did some research into the origins of this caricature because I was really interested in where the idea to use this Black woman to sell pancake mix came from. And what I found is fascinating. Are you ready?
Oh, I’m ready.
So in 1889, this dude named Christopher Rutt and his friend Charles G. Underwood, they decide to buy a flour mill in St. Louis, Mo., which if you look at a map, is actually not that far from Minneapolis, Minn., just saying. So in order to revive sales, they start making an instant pancake mix that all you have to do is add water. And they put it in these paper bags, and they sell it. And they realize that they need something to kind of give the brand a little zhuzh and distinguish it from other companies. So our old friend Chris Rutt — and this is the part where the tea gets piping hot, honey — this man edits a newspaper called The St. Joseph Gazette. So think about that. So this is someone who fully understands the power of narrative, who fully understands how images work, how media works. Apparently, he decides that the image they’re going to use is going to be an image that he saw from an old, yeah, “minstrel vaudeville” — I’m using that in quotes — poster, where there was a figure that they lifted and transformed into what we call Aunt Jemima. There’s also a part of the lore that goes, there was a song called “Old Aunt Jemima,” a minstrel song. And that served as inspiration as well.
“Old Aunt Jemima” isn’t just any minstrel song. A, it was a huge hit for Billy Kersands, who wrote and performed it like thousands of times all over the country. He might even have gone to England and done it a couple times, too. Written by a Black man who performed as a blackface minstrel because that’s how it worked. It’s the only way Black people could really get a foothold in the entertainment industry at any point in the 19th century. But the song is different from other minstrel songs in that it’s about an old Black woman who is waiting for her mistress to die. But this bitch won’t die. (LAUGHS)
She keeps not dying. And old Aunt Jemima is just like, when — you said you were going to die and set me free. You said you were going to die. We had a deal. You just keep living, and I keep being enslaved. Why?
Well, so Chris Rutt, he decides he’s going to use an image that he’s pulled from maybe the song, maybe a poster. He’s going to do it with the help of, you know, a Black woman who is in this stereotypical role as a, quote, “mammy,” right? That is essentially how you get Aunt Jemima on a pancake box.
That Aunt Jemima looked like a classic minstrel figure. Big lipped. She’s got these little wooden teeth, these — they look like corn cobs. And these big sunken eyes that seem to have no human expression at all. And atop her head is this kerchief. And in some ways, this is the classic mammy figure that you would have gone to the theater to see a white man perform on stage. And so this image has basically been set in the minds of American popular culture for a long time by 1889. So it was kind of a no-brainer because these images are also, it’s worth pointing out, pro-slavery images. They are pictures of domestic servitude that the servant herself seems more than happy to provide.
But really, that was a common way to draw Black people at that point in time.
Here comes the rain again.
Oh, yeah, we’re in the middle of it. It’s juicy. I’m not mad. My plants aren’t mad, either. OK, so this character has been created to sell the pancake mix. And a year later in 1890, an entrepreneur named R.T. Davis buys the whole company and decides, you know what, we’re actually going to hire Black women to play the role of Aunt Jemima to further sell this product. And one of the places they do it is at the World’s Fair in Chicago, Ill., in 1893. And a formerly enslaved woman named Nancy Green is hired to walk around the fair, do these pancake demos, presumably cook the pancakes, and feed them to people.
She cooked the pancakes, yes.
And she’s dressed like the character of Aunt Jemima, with the bandanna, and the apron, the whole nine.
Yeah, I mean at that same World’s Fair, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells were walking around handing out pamphlets —
— basically criticizing the fair organizers for including no Black people in the planning of the fair itself.
Talk about the tension between being represented and being respected. It was all happening at that festival.
It was a really crazy time. I mean, you’ve got two of the world’s most important Black people in Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells doing the work to try to bring attention to the sort of inherent unfairness of who gets to decide how Black people are represented at this fair.
But then you have all — you have like huge Black attendance coming to see all of the spectacles at the fair, including Nancy Green. The Pancake Queen, by the way, is what they called her.
Wow. Well, I’m really glad you brought that into the room, Wesley, because it’s really important to note. So Nancy is one of the first of many women to play this role over the years, and including up until and after Quaker buys the brand. And many of the descendants, including the descendants of a woman named Lillian Richard, who was also hired to portray her, they talk about that inherited legacy as being a source of pride, because Black people and Black women never had public-facing roles. They never had jobs where they were meant to be seen and meant to be looked at. And so it’s very complicated that that was her job. So it’s not as simple as we might like to think, looking backwards. But you know, Wesley, one of the things they were asking these women to do, these actors, as they were portraying Aunt Jemima, they wanted them to reinforce the idea that Black people were happy in these subservient, domestic roles.
- archived recording 1
Smiling, happy Aunt Jemima, famous for her secret recipe pancakes, waffles, and buckwheat.
- archived recording 2
And now, Aunt Jemima, one of your old plantation sings, if you will.
- archived recording (aunt jemima)
It’s a pleasure, folks, to remind y’all that the Lord meant for the sky to be blue. But if the day is blue, it’s probably our fault.
- archived recording 2
True, Aunt Jemima, true.
This is straight out of minstrelsy. She was a minstrel figure, essentially. And let’s just talk about the way that those women were depicted on those boxes. And into this you can throw a caricature of a person like Uncle Ben, or Rastus, the face of the Cream of Wheat, the racistly named Rastus on the box of Cream of Wheat. Each of these people is depicted how, Jenna? What are they doing with their faces on all those boxes?
I mean, they have a maniacal grin on their faces, you know?
I mean, they look like a character from the movie “Get Out.” Like, they look like they’re being held hostage and being forced to enjoy it.
Yes. And that smile is the smile that has been haunting us for almost 200 years.
It is the smile of servitude. It is the smile of complicity. It is the smile that says, these people like the harm that we are doing to them every day.
They enjoy it.
We’ve been doing it for centuries.
They like it.
But you see this smile? This smile means that it’s OK that that harm is being done. It is the smile that Black people know or associate with a kind of complicity in their own victimization. It is a smile that basically says, I’m not going to resist. It’s associated with whatever we mean when we say Uncle Tom, because it implies — that sort of smiling Black person implies that you’re going along with this racist system.
- archived recording (aunt jemima)
(LAUGHS) Greetings, folks, greetings. This is your old friend, Aunt Jemima.
- archived recording
And pleased as punch with yourself this morning, aren’t you, Aunt Jemima?
- archived recording (aunt jemima)
(LAUGHS) ‘Course I am, Mr. Lyon.
- archived recording
Smiling, happy Aunt Jemima. Smiling, happy Aunt Jemima, famous for her secret recipe pancakes, waffles, and buckwheat. What’s the good word, Aunt Jemima?
- archived recording (aunt jemima)
Well, Mr. Lyon, folks says there’s nothing so pretty as a happy face and nothing so worthwhile as a happy life.
- archived recording
Yes, Aunt Jemima, that is true.
And that’s some powerful stuff. And it — like what it does in terms of the image that gets reinforced, it’s very hard to see around that.
This is generations of kids of all races raised on these images.
It’s funny to me, Wesley, how much of this I’m really only learning because we’re making an episode about it. You know, America works really, really, really hard to hide this history from us. But it impacts us, whether or not we talk about it or not, right?
So for Quaker to say, “Oh my gosh, you know what, we don’t want to have this image anymore, we realize it’s totally racist. You guys have been telling us for years. We finally agree. Black Pancake Lives Matter!” And they decide to vaporize it. In doing that, you can’t wave a magic wand over centuries of subjugation and oppression. And in trying to do that, I think you end up ripping open a bigger wound than you’re able to heal.
Yes, yes, yes. Part of what is happening right now in this country is people becoming aware of how deep the roots go. And I think being forced to think about — I mean, listen, I’m as guilty of this as anybody, right? I mean, for as much time as I spend thinking about, researching, writing about, emoting about all of this history, some things just slip through my cracks. And Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks are two such things. I will sit here and tell you that when they changed the names of their bands.
I was really like, oh, yeah. I guess that does make sense.
Oh, my god.
And it’s not that I don’t know what Antebellum is probably referring to. And it’s not like I don’t know what Dixie is. Lady Antebellum, I guess I didn’t think about it because “Need You Now” is just one of the great American songs, period. It just hit me. I’m like, maybe Dixie isn’t a thing you want in your band name right now, or ever.
But that’s how it works, though, Wesley. And I really love when our geographical Black starts showing. Like, that is such a Northern thing to say because what’s interesting about this intersection of our conversation is that it’s revealing the ways in which these ideas and these terms are normalized, because either, A, they don’t register as a red flag in your case, and then, B, in my case, if I were to say something, I would be gaslit. People would be like, oh, you’re sensitive. You make everything about race. I fully drove down I-95 in the summer blasting Lady Antebellum as well, and fully being uncomfortable, and then trying to parse it out in my mind, and being like, yo, but what does that mean? Like, what is — what’s the deal, and not really feeling like I could talk about it openly. And if I did, I’d be shamed for it. So it’s — there are just the — this is — it’s really an exposition of about how race and racism works in this country. It’s that we’re told it doesn’t matter. We’re told everything’s neutral. We’re told not to pay attention to it when, in fact, it’s all, it’s all so important.
You know, I remember growing up and going to a yard sale in deep Southern Virginia and there just being a Confederate flag, like that’s normal, right? I remember friends inviting me to come with them to see a NASCAR race. And me being like, I can’t go there, and them being like, why not? Like the ways in which intuitively I understood these things to be dangerous, but the popular culture kept insisting that they weren’t.
Yeah. I’ve got to tell you, I was in love with Bo and Luke Duke for a long time.
And for anybody who wasn’t around for “The Dukes of Hazard” real show, like in the 1980s, the car that Bo and Luke Duke drove was called the General Lee. And emblazoned on the hood of the car was this Confederate flag. And, you know, Bo and Luke Duke were always sliding across the hood of the car and, therefore, that Confederate flag on the General Lee. And I mean, the thing that was so sexy about them was those tight-ass jeans they wore. And those jeans were flying back and forth over that flag in so many episodes.
I don’t recall a single Black person being on it. Therefore — I guess therefore, I don’t recall there being a single racist incident. I think the racist incident is the existence of the show itself in some ways. And something about that transmitted itself from C.B.S. through the airwaves, to my living room, to my psyche. And it was just like the wrongness of these sexy men and this sexy Daisy Duke. All the sex on that show, or sexiness, was tinged with a wrongness, you know? But the thing about what we’re talking about when we’re talking about normalization is a separate thing from really thinking about what it would mean to then pretend that this thing that had always been normal never even existed.
And that is the thing that is sort of annoying me about this Aunt Jemima situation, which is that we are not even going to do the work that’s required, I think, to understand what the problem even was in the first place.
Because there is a way to receive this Aunt Jemima news and just be like, well, I guess we shouldn’t put Black people on the cover of things.
I guess we shouldn’t put Black people on — we shouldn’t have Black people advertising food.
Yeah, well, then we need to talk about why Aunt Jemima is an actual problem.
I mean, Wesley, you know, you and I are both kind of circling around this idea of transformative justice, which is how do you repair harm that’s been done without creating more violence? That’s just a very basic way to talk about it. But what we’re looking for is a framework to move forward. And just hitting the delete button won’t get us there. And that’s, I think, the thing that keeps getting stuck for both of us with Aunt Jemima, right? And it’s like all these other shifts that are happening, they’ve been problematic for years. But, you know, the Chicks, as they’re calling themselves now, even in their statement, they said, we want to respond to the moment. What they did not say, though, was like, A, we’ve done some deep soul-searching. We realize the word Dixie is racist and problematic, or it has this historical weight that we no longer feel is appropriate. No, they literally just said, we have FOMO. And listen, you and I both have professed our deep love for the Dixie Chicks on this show. And, you know, that can be there, and also I can lovingly hold them accountable and ask for more, which is to say that I have a hard time believing that that’s a new awareness for them. And to sort of insist that exacerbates the problem that they’re trying to eradicate. So I don’t know, Dixie Chicks. Take it from us. Don’t do that.
Also, if you’re Lady Antebellum, by the — I mean, just to — while we’re in country music trio name changes, it seems like they hadn’t checked in with the Black blues singer who’d been going by the name Lady A for like 20 years. So now they worked something out, it seemed. But now Lady A took a second to think about what they worked out and was like, mm, uh, mm, I don’t think so. Now, there’s more legal wrangling between Lady A and Lady A. We’ll see how that goes. But the larger question is, changing something cosmetic like the name of your band is just like the first step in the reckoning of something deeper with respect to reconciliation and reparations or reconciliation being part of reparations. And it brings up this other larger question of how do you begin to right the harms done, both to consumers of these products and to the people who are not being acknowledged in their sale and proliferation? And so what does it mean for the faces of these products to not be adequately or equally or justly compensated?
So you and I should just take a quick break, get our breath. And then when we come back, we’re going to talk about reconciliation and reparations.
Speaking of reparations, which is a sentence I love to say, speaking of reparations and Aunt Jemima, she was played by a number of Black women over the years up until, what, the mid-‘60s?
So there are a lot of relatives of these actresses who have sought restitution from Quaker. And most famously, there was a case in 2015, where some of the descendants of a woman named Anna Short Harrington, who played Aunt Jemima in the late ‘30s, they filed a lawsuit. They were just like, in 1937, you created a trademark based on this imagery that we believe is based on our relative. And you made a lot of money off of her, money that none of us ever saw. And one of the bases for the claims was that because the trademark was established in the ‘30s, there had been billions made —
— off of this likeness —
— because Quaker was bought by Pepsi, right?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
At some point. So what these men wanted was $2 billion in cash. And they wanted a share of sales revenue. They wanted stock. They wanted all the things that would be rightfully theirs if someone were to license a trademark in your image and then make money off of it. But ultimately, the judge on the case threw it out because he felt there wasn’t enough documentation that the men making the complaint were her heirs or that there was an estate. So when you think about how difficult it is to find historical Black records, I mean, I cannot reliably find a birth certificate for my father. What our family says is the story of his birth is very different from what the government has as a record of his birth. So I bring that up to say, just because they were not able to reliably prove her employment or their relation to her has — it means nothing. But that’s not how it’s seen in a court of law. And that’s definitely not how the media reported on this lawsuit in 2015.
Oh, yeah, I’m sure. I feel like one of the things that those descendants of Miss Harrington are entitled to is to be able to tell a story. I think that one of the things that has to happen in this moment of erasure and correction is the story of what needs to be repaired. On the one hand, there is this thing called reparations. And some very smart, very educated people have done the work on what that would mean to actually even talk about, let alone distribute. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written “The Case for Reparations.” Nikole Hannah-Jones has written a story as recently as last month called “What Is Owed.” What you and I are talking about right now is another part of the reparation process that makes the money make sense in some ways, at least to me. It’s more cultural, and psychic, and emotional than that, because we’re not talking about money. I’m talking about something much closer to truth and reconciliation.
The process by which you lay out the harms that this country has committed against any number of people, be it Indigenous Americans, be it Black Americans, be it the Chinese and the Japanese and the Mexicans. And this is why Aunt Jemima is such an amazing figure through which to think about this. This is a woman who money is still being made off of in 2020, whose fame — I mean, this is the only word for it is fame — began in the Postbellum South and was connected to 60 years before that, before the Civil War, to an art form that started in the 1830s. And so I don’t know how the descendents of those women aren’t owed something for the exploitative labor practices committed against them in some way. I don’t know if Nancy Green — did she go to meetings? Did she have a say in how her image was used and was proliferated?
She was probably proud of the work she did.
It was a big deal! But that representation should not have been free. And there was a cost associated with all that pancake mixing because we are still bearing that cost today. I, as a Black person, I live with the awareness that one of the side effects of all this racist advertising, and just the racist imagery that has been with us for all of these centuries, is this kind of self-consciousness about my relationship to food. And this is — I am — I mean, Jenna, I know you’ve got a little bit of this, too.
Many Black people in my life have this awareness of just not feeling entirely comfortable, for instance, eating a watermelon in mixed company. Fried chicken, for a long time, was a thing that I’ve really had to sit and think about whether I wanted to eat fried chicken with white people. I know it’s insane.
But this is the direct result of a trauma that has been given to us that proliferates through these racist images. And how do I know as like an 11- or 12-year-old that I don’t want to be eating a watermelon in front of white people? Why do I know that? Where did that come from? TV told me. The ads told me. And so I’m thinking through the story of something that needs to be repaired, right? And I don’t think that changing the face on the box of a pancake mix is really fixing anything.
You know, one of the suggestions that’s come from one of the descendants of one of the actors that played Aunt Jemima — it’s so funny how murky it is. But one of the things they’ve suggested is coming out with a commemorative box that recognizes all the women who’ve portrayed Aunt Jemima over the years. The back of the box could list their names. They could spotlight different women. They could turn them into collector’s items. Don’t get rid of the image of Aunt Jemima, but also show the women. There are ideas out there. Like, people just aren’t walking around saying, you owe us money. People have ideas for what this process of reconciliation can look like. You know, the women who played Aunt Jemima weren’t given the choice to shape how their image was being used. And right now, there are the descendants of these women, and Black consumers, who have real actionable ideas about how to preserve that legacy, pain, dignity, all of it.
And we have the opportunity to be thoughtful. They have the opportunity to listen and to make those choices. And look, if Quaker can take Aunt Jemima on a road show all around the country and overseas, too. You know, they went to the Paris World Fair as well, and Disneyland itself had an entire restaurant about Aunt Jemima and devoted to pancakes.
If they can do all that in the past, then they can certainly take the steps to push it forward, and take the legacy of Aunt Jemima to both the Blacksonian and Disneyland with the real story. Just commemorate her, and unearth the history, and bring it into the future so that everybody can learn from those mistakes.
You know, there’s a meme that’s going around that I’ve really been holding close throughout all of this. And it’s a slide show. And the first slide is the news announcing that non-white actors will no longer voice characters on “The Simpsons.” There is a slide, “The Office” is taking down episodes featuring blackface. Realtors in some state are no longer going to call the master bedroom the master bedroom anymore, right? It kind of gets more ridiculous as they go on. And then the last slide is a quote from Malcolm X. And it says, in very typical Malcolm X fashion, but this has really been sticking with me and I’m going to hold it close: “The white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories, rather than economic equity and real justice.” And I really think that sums up everything about this moment, that we have to be really careful not to get bogged down in the symbolism of it all. And we have to ask for real things that both look like that economic renumeration, but also that cultural acknowledgment that we were here. We had lives, and they mattered, you know? That’s really all anybody wants, and it’s really not too much.
That’s our show. “Still Processing” is a product of The New York Times. And it was recorded in our living rooms.
It is produced by Hans Buetow.
Our editors are Sara Sarasohn, Sasha Weiss, Wendy Dorr, and Lisa Tobin.
Our engineer is Jake Gorski.
And our theme music’s by Kindness. It’s called “World Restart,” from the album “Otherness.”
And per ushe, all of our episodes and various things are at nytimes.com/stillprocessing.
Thanks for listening, everybody. Be well. Be safe. Wear your mask.
And sunscreen. Bye.