Commentary: Can we unsee what we have seen?

 (Robert J. Lloyd)
By Robert Lloyd The Black Lens

After attending the talk “Challenging Stereotype: Reworking Aunt Jemima” given by Meredith Shimizu of Whitworth University on Feb. 11 at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, I was inspired to do an art piece on Aunt Jemima.

The complaints about the Aunt Jemima character and similar images have been voiced for many decades, dating back to the early 20th century. African American activists, scholars, and community leaders have consistently raised awareness about the harm caused by racial stereotypes and have advocated for the removal of such imagery from popular culture.

In recent years, with the rise of social media and increased public dialogue about racial representation, the criticisms of the Aunt Jemima character gained more visibility and traction. This led to a broader awareness of the problematic nature of the character and ultimately contributed to the decision by Quaker Oats to retire the brand in 2020.

There are historical images that appear in the media and on the pancake boxes. In the 1960’s, artists such as Betye Saar created images to give push back. Now I want to create images that ask the question can there ever be a positive image of a Black woman with pancakes? Or has the stereotype done too much damage. Can we unsee what we have seen?

I remember in the 1950s, there was a signification among Black kids: “Ain’t your mama on a pancake box?” One can see the damage done by stereotypes.

The use of the Aunt Jemima character and imagery has been a subject of criticism and concern within the African American community for many years. Some of the key complaints and issues raised about the Aunt Jemima character and similar stereotypical images include:

1. Racial Stereotyping: The Aunt Jemima character is seen as perpetuating racial stereotypes of Black women, particularly the “mammy” stereotype, which portrays black women as subservient, nurturing, and dedicated to serving white families. This portrayal is demeaning and offensive, as it reinforces historical power dynamics and dehumanizes Black folks.

2. Negative Historical Context: The character’s origins in minstrel shows and its association with racial caricatures from the Jim Crow era contribute to a legacy of racism and discrimination. Many in the African American community view the Aunt Jemima imagery as a painful reminder of a time when Black people were marginalized and dehumanized in popular culture.

3. Lack of Authentic Representation: Critics argue that the Aunt Jemima character does not authentically represent the diversity and complexity of Black women’s experiences. Instead, it reduces an entire group of people to a one-dimensional caricature, ignoring their individuality, achievements, and contributions to society.

The ongoing discussions about racial stereotypes and representation in media and marketing, continue to be important topics within the African American community and the broader society. A lens gives a view but it is more important to have a voice about things that are seen in order to awaken discussions and solutions for future actions.