For over 100 years, Aunt Jemima was used as the face of a pancake mix’s brand. Four years ago, the logo was retired in response to mounting complaints about Aunt Jemima’s origins.

Members of the Spokane community gathered Sunday afternoon to attend a lecture titled “Challenging Stereotypes: Reworking Aunt Jemima.” The lecture, hosted at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, was given by Meredith Shimizu, a professor of art history at Whitworth University.

Shimizu, who has previously given other lectures related to Black voices, spoke on the origins of the Aunt Jemima pancake mix logo, the artwork that has challenged it and the way the symbol still exists today. 

The lecture began by introducing the Aunt Jemima symbol, which she said was prominently used as the face of the Aunt Jemima brand from 1889 to 2020. 

Shimizu said the Aunt Jemima logo originated in a discussion between two businessmen looking for a way to market their new pancake mix brand. Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood came up with the idea after Rutt attended a performance where a white performer in Blackface sang a song called “Old Aunt Jemima.”

“That gave him the idea to name his product ‘Aunt Jemima’s pancake flour,’” Shimizu said.

In 1893, Aunt Jemima pancake mix was sold by Rutt and Underwood, who could not figure out how to market their brand. The new company that owned Aunt Jemima, the R.T. Davis Milling Company, wanted to use the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago to market the brand and find a “face” of the company. 

According to Shimizu, the new owner decided to hire Nancy Green, a formerly enslaved Black woman, to play the role of Aunt Jemima as a marketing strategy.

Green went on to travel and play the role of Aunt Jemima in presentations. Shimizu said Green and her Aunt Jemima character were meant to evoke the “Mammy” stereotype of a Black woman working on a plantation.

“This stereotype was often used to sell other products,” Shimizu said, referring to food and household products. “If you buy this pancake mix, it’s as if Aunt Jemima is in your home.” 

This sparked the beginning of the usage of pop culture and household items being used to portray the imagery of a “Mammy” stereotype. Black women who are often older and bigger and are portrayed as motherly caretakers, usually devoid of sexuality. 

Shimizu said that it wasn’t long before this offensive imagery began to receive national backlash, garnering the attention of several artists who wanted to push back.

“The 60’s marked the beginning of the Black artists movement, which paved the way for many artists to challenge the Aunt Jemima stereotypes through their work,” Shimizu said. 

Shimizu showed the audience various pieces of art that she said were meant to protest against the stereotypical Aunt Jemima. Artist Jeff Donaldson, for example, wanted to depict Aunt Jemima as strong and present by replacing her smile with a harsher, more confident look in his 1963 painting titled “Aunt Jemima and the Pillsbury Doughboy.” 

“The ‘new’ Jemima being made in the United States suggests the idea that anyone can change and create their future,” Shimizu said.

As a result, many other artists began to create their artistic interpretations of Aunt Jemima, making her look more human while embracing her femininity and sexual identity. 

Annie Feuerstein, a former student of Shimizu’s at Whitworth University, was in attendance at the lecture. Feuerstein said she wants to know what the female artists from the 1970’s felt about the male artists that first created their own interpretations of Aunt Jemima. 

“Just having the conversation is really important,” Feuerstein said. “There are plenty of people who may not even be aware that Aunt Jemima has been a stereotype.”

Feuerstein said she appreciated how the more recent artwork of Aunt Jemima revolved around the character having her own life and complexities. 

Another Spokane resident, Olivia Caulliez, said she has attended several of the museum’s lectures relating to her love of art.

“I like art and it gives me a new perspective … what it is and what it’s for,” Caulliez said. “It is so incredible to see the significance of imagery in our society today.”

Caulliez said she feels these lectures are important for gaining a better understanding of the world we live in. She said she enjoys the lecture series and appreciates the opportunity to learn something new.

Shimizu said that, over time, the Aunt Jemima brand made changes to its logo in an effort to better represent modern Black women. Specifically, the brand replaced Aunt Jemima’s headscarf with a headband.

However, Shimizu said the Aunt Jemima logo was officially discontinued in 2020.

“The brand remained consistent with the look of Aunt Jemima until 2020, when the uproar of social justice issues, specifically those related to the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted the company to remove all kinds of Aunt Jemima imagery in their brand,” Shimizu said.

In 2021, the brand was officially renamed Pearl Milling. Shimizu said this change was due, in part, to the work of artists over time.

“We can note how different the approaches are that these artists take to understand this particular woman,” Shimizu said. “They are trying different strategies to drain this name … Aunt Jemima, from the legacy of its racial stereotype and figure out how to push beyond the ways we’ve been contained within these social structures, and how we use art to fight against it.”

Meredith Shimizu returns next month to the NWMAC for her discussion on the American flag and how it exists in the world of art.


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