November 16, 2020
By Bailey Darbro
If you’ve ever shopped at your local grocery store in the breakfast and grains aisle or grew up eating these starch staples, you’re probably familiar with Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s products. However, when thinking of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, people often associate caricatures to the names, not food. Before Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s came to be American icons, initial interests needed to be established. These are the stories of the woman and man who became foods, that became products, which then turned them into two of the most recognizable figures in history.
However, both Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s have come under fire this year for the racism, sexism, and social disparity present in their brand origins and logos. The images associated with these brands not only sold syrup, pancake mix, and rice, but perpetuated painful stereotypes that negatively shaped how African Americans and women were perceived for generations. There’s a bucketload of history behind these brands that most Americans are unaware of, until now.
Let’s start with the most known of the two brands: Aunt Jemima. At first glance in the breakfast aisle, the red pancake box just appears to feature a middle-aged Black woman with curly brown hair and a pearly white smile. Harmless, right? Not. To understand why the “Aunt Jemima” image is racist, one would first have to understand American history, specifically the countless struggles and disparities that directly affected Black women, and still do. The origin behind the Aunt Jemima brand is a dark one, to say the least. Did you know that Aunt Jemima was first introduced as a character in a minstrel show — an American form of entertainment developed in the late 19th century? Minstrel shows were performed by white men in blackface for the purpose of playing roles that ridiculed Black people. The “Aunt Jemima” minstrel character was portrayed as a slave “Mammy” from the Plantation South that every white American household needed and desired.
Never achieving the status of “Mother,” (a status reserved for white women), “Mammy” was at best a “mother’s helper.” It was “Mammy’s” responsibility to prepare the family’s food and clothing, to care for the family’s children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and friends, and to serve as a trusted confidant responsible for the emotional and physical support and well-being of her white family. Always happy, never complaining, loyal and dutiful to the end, “Mammy” worked for no pay or time-off. Her only purpose was to serve her white family and tend to their every beck and call.
In 1890, a 56-year-old widowed, Black woman and former housekeeper living in Chicago, Illinois, named Nancy Green, assumed the role of Aunt Jemima. Nancy Green was born enslaved March 4, 1834 in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Green moved to Chicago after the Civil War. There, she worked for the Walker family as a domestic servant.
Green first debuted as Aunt Jemima at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago. She dressed as Aunt Jemima, sang songs, cooked pancakes, and told romanticized stories about the Old South — a happy, nostalgic place for Black and white people, now only accessible by buying Aunt Jemima’s pancakes. Green’s extraordinary success from the Expo resulted in her signing a lifetime contract with the Davis Milling Company and traveling on promotional tours across the country. The Davis Milling Company delivered to their customers “a real life Mammy.” Along with the pancake mix, pamphlets were given out telling Aunt Jemima’s ‘life story.’ According to the pamphlet, she had been the house slave of Colonel Higbee, whose plantation was known across the South for its delicious pancakes. After the war, the Davis Milling Company paid Aunt Jemima in gold to share her secret recipe.
Here’s the actual story behind Aunt Jemima. The Davis Milling Company weren’t selling pancakes; they were selling the “Mammy” fantasy that white people wanted to hold on to. The only ingredient that really mattered was Aunt Jemima. The company was profiting off her so-called “Mammy” appearance and using her as a symbol of wealth to bring back the nostalgia that characterized the Plantation South and slave era. Aunt Jemima became a 1920’s perception of the South as a culture of white leisure and Black labor. A “Mammy” or as most knew her, “Aunt Jemima,” became the ultimate status symbol: owning a slave.
Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, a labor-saving product, was marketed with comparisons to a time and place when some American white women had the ultimate labor-saving device: a slave. A line from a 1927 ad read: “Make them with Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour, and your family will ask where you got your wonderful Southern Cook.” Or, just another way to say, “Your family will ask where you purchased a Slave Mammy such as this.” Slavery, and moreover, the fantasy of having slaves, was still the main attraction of the Aunt Jemima brand. Aunt Jemima’s ready-mixed products offered middle-class housewives the next best thing to a Black servant: a “slave in a box” that conjured up romantic images of not only the food but also the social hierarchy of the Plantation South.
Although she played Aunt Jemima, Green was a notable woman in her own right. She was a founding member of Chicago’s Olivet Baptist Church, one of Chicago’s largest Black congregations, serving as a church missionary who advocated for antipoverty programs and Black equal rights. Nancy Green was more than an African-American model hired to be the face of a breakfast company, more than a caricature designed to bring back feelings of nostalgia of the Plantation South, and more than a former slave and servant for white families; Nancy Green was a good human being, and deserved to be treated like one. As a hardworking cook, loving wife, caring mother, and an active church and community member, her legacy will not be forgotten.
You know the cheery, older African-American man, wearing a white collared shirt on the orange box with rice inside? Yeah, that’s Uncle Ben. Uncle Ben’s mascot has changed to a suit and tie, in an effort by the company to show wealth and success of the ‘entrepreneur.’ Little is known about the company’s history regarding their current logo described above. What we do know is that Frank Brown, a maitre d’hotel in a Chicago restaurant, was the man whose face became the star of Uncle Ben’s in 1946. Uncle Ben may never have existed, although Mars Food corporate lore references a Black rice farmer, in Beaumont, Texas, as his inspiration. There is little known about the history behind Uncle Ben’s and its origin, but the history of Black farmers in Texas in the 1940s concludes that Uncle Ben, had he existed, would not have been the successful entrepreneur the Mars Food marketing team has made him out to be. It’s more likely he would have been the son of sharecroppers, and possibly still a sharecropper himself. His grandparents would have been born into slavery.
Since the 1940s, the rice boxes have featured a white-haired Black man, dressed in a bow tie and a white collared shirt, an image that many people claim evokes servitude. Uncle Ben’s mascot is dressed as a servant, and has a soft, friendly smile plastered on his face that tells others he’s happy to live a life of servitude. Why is a Black a man used as the face of a white company? Is “Uncle Ben” designed to be perceived by white people as a nothing more than a loyal servant? Let’s discuss some history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “Uncle” was a derogatory term used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to describe a Black man who was subservient to white authority figures. Black men were often referred to as “boy” or “Uncle” to avoid calling them “Mr.” The names “Aunt” and “Uncle” were simplistic ways of calling slaves without having to use the terms “madam” or “sir.”
Marilyn Kern Foxworth, the author of “Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” says it best, “The only time Blacks were put into ads was when they were athletic, subservient or entertainers.”
This past September, Mars Inc. announced it’s changing the branding of it’s Uncle Ben’s Rice products. Uncle Ben’s will become Ben’s Original, and will drop the logo of an elderly African American man in a bow tie.
The company announced, “Over the last several weeks, we have listened to thousands of consumers, our own associates and other stakeholders from around the world. We’ve listened. We’ve learned. We’re changing. We understand the inequities that were associated with the name and face of the Uncle Ben’s brand and as we announced in June, we have committed to change.”
The Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix will get a new name and image, Quaker Oats announced back in June, saying the company recognizes that “Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype.”
We’ll leave you with wise words spoken by Riché Richardson, an associate professor of African American literature at Cornell University, “Retiring Aunt Jemima matters because the logo is a retrograde image of Black womanhood on store shelves. It’s an image that hearkens back to the antebellum plantation. … Aunt Jemima is that kind of stereotype that is premised on this idea of Black inferiority and otherness.”
- The real Kentucky story behind “Aunt Jemima” – Lexington Herald Leader
- Uncle Ben’s Changes to Ben’s Original Amid Rebranding of Racist Labeling – Forbes
- Uncle Ben, Board Chairman – The New York Times
- Brands that revealed plan to change, review racist mascots and logos – Business Insider
- Uncle Ben’s, Aunt Jemima, and Other Racist Brand Names That Got The Ax – LX
- Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben deserve retirement – NBC News
- Aunt Jemima pancake mix logo was based on Kentucky native Nancy Green – Courier Journal
- The Aunt Jemima brand, acknowledging its racist past, will be retired – CNN
- Aunt Jemima: It was Never About the Pancakes – Black Excellence
- Who were the real people behind Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s? – USA Today