June 26, 2020 / 4:28 PM / 5 days ago

Fact check: Photograph shows white artist’s interpretation of Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima

Users on social media are sharing a mislabeled artwork that appears to show a Black woman chained to a table while smiling and holding a stack of pancakes. Users claim the image is a hidden photograph of “the real Aunt Jemima”, referring to Nancy Green, the original model of the famous pancake mix brand. The photograph in the claim is actually a self-portrait of white artist Sally Stockhold, which was staged to make her resemble Aunt Jemima.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Examples of the claim are visible here , here , here , here , here .

ARTWORK IN THE CLAIM

The photograph ( bit.ly/3eAzeJC ) titled “Aunt Jemima: I laughed because they paid me” is part of a self-portrait collection by Stockhold.

According to a statement here , Stockhold’s intention was to acknowledge “accomplished women from history and fiction” who have not been fairly remembered through time. Gertrude Stein, Alice B.Toklas and Frida Kahlo are among other women featured in Stockhold’s collection.

The artist told Reuters via email that she was deeply moved by Green’s history and therefore wanted to include her in this collection. “It saddens me that the irony of her laughing while being chained to the tabled filled with the pancakes that she has labored over may have been misinterpreted.”

SYMBOLIC SHACKLES

The Aunt Jemima brand has been criticized for romanticizing the Antebellum South ( bit.ly/3eCQ2zF see page 60) and perpetuating imagery of the “mammy”, a racial caricature of African American women (here).

According to the Jim Crow Museum (an institution that displays objects of intolerance to promote social justice), the mammy caricature was used during slavery and the Jim Crow era as proof that black women “were contented, even happy, as slaves”, suggesting “The slavery-era mammy did not want to be free.” ( here )

In the book “Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory”, Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, associate professor at Emory University, attributes Aunt Jemima’s success to the “happy slave mythology” ( bit.ly/3eCQ2zF ).“An African American woman, pretending to be a slave, was pivotal to the trademark’s commercial achievement in 1893. Its success revolved around the fantasy of returning a black woman to a sanitized version of slavery”, writes Wallace-Sanders (page 61).

In an op-ed for NBC News, writer Michael Twitty discussed his concern over the mixed reactions at the brand’s recent retirement: “As pleasant and formative an experience as the memory of this particular brand mascot might be for some white people, it’s also the root of the problem.” He describes Aunt Jemima’s character “an invitation to white people to indulge in a fantasy of enslaved people — and by extension, all of Black America — as submissive, self-effacing, loyal, pacified and pacifying. It positions Black people as boxed in, prepackaged and ready to satisfy; it’s the problem of all consumption, only laced with racial overtones.” ( here ).

According to Maurice M. Manring, Aunt Jemima adverts sold the idea of “the lifestyle once created for plantation mistresses” made easy by the efforts of female slaves. Manring adds, “White housewives did not aspire to be Aunt Jemima; they aspired to have her. They were buying the idea of a slave, in a box.” ( bit.ly/2NxcZbJ ).

BRAND’S HISTORY

The Aunt Jemima brand was developed in 1889, named after the song “Old Aunt Jemima”, which was featured in 19th-century minstrel shows ( here ). In 1893, Nancy Green, a former slave from Kentucky, became the first woman to portray Aunt Jemima at the World’s Fair in Chicago ( www.auntjemima.com/our-history ), where “she sang songs, cooked pancakes and told stories about the Old South […] that presented it as a happy place for blacks and whites alike.” ( here ) A compilation of the brand’s evolution and advertising campaigns is visible here .

On the hundredth anniversary of the brand in 1989, the Quaker Oats Company removed the brand’s image headband and gave her pearl earrings ( here ) allegedly to move Aunt Jemima’s image away from the original slave figure. However, these changes seemed to be “subtle rather than substantive”, according to Brian D. Behnken and Gregory D. Smithers, the authors of “Racism in American Popular Media” ( bit.ly/3eAd8qP , see page 30).

Stockhold’s photo has recently gained attention amid a national debate over racial inequality in the U.S. during which PepsiCo Inc announced it will change the name and brand image of Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix and syrup, after recognizing the origins of the brand “are based on a racial stereotype”. ( here )

Regarding to this decision, Marcus Hayes, great-great-great-nephew of Nancy Green, told WBEZ here ) that while understanding the sensitivity of the name and the brand, “I don’t want Nancy Green’s legacy and what she did under that name to be lost.”

VERDICT

False. The photograph in the social media posts is not a real image of Nancy Green, who was the face of the brand Aunt Jemima, but rather a self-portrait photograph staged and taken in 2008 by an artist.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts  here .

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