Mascots of Color Removed


Clay Arnold

Characters from many household products have been removed from advertisements in attempts to correct historic racial injustices in the corporate world.

Clay Arnold, Editor

“I Can’t Breathe”, “ Say their names”, “ No justice, no peace.”

The three most prominent phrases from the 2020 uproar of the Black Lives Matter protests continue to ring through the ears of Americans to this day. In recent years, the conversation about the poor treatment of people of color has been amplified and the concept of representation has been brought up. The depictions of people of color in the mainstream media contribute to the overall perception of their cultures, heritages, and lifestyles. When characters are portrayed unrealistically and unfairly, the aspects of these people’s lives are misconstrued and muddled. Popular mascots of brands and products have been reconsidered in terms of accuracy and sensitivity. Characters like Uncle Ben, Cream of Wheat’s Rastus, and especially Aunt Jemima have been thought to be sending the wrong message and unfortunately promoting division. 

The term “Rastus” is used as a derogatory term for black men. It has garnered a connotation of uneducation and poor decorum. The name dates back to 1880 when Joel Chandler coined the character, Brer Rastus in his first Uncle Remus book. This happens to be the lesser-known name of the mascot for B&G Foods’s Cream of Wheat. The character was introduced in 1893 and wears a white chef’s outfit and a blank smile. With his name in mind, it’s no wonder the brand has a history of depicting him to be uneducated and illiterate. Several advertisements for the famous side dish have been discovered depicting Rastus holding up signs, plastered with incorrect spelling and grammar, as well as the black chef serving only white children.  The famous character, Uncle Ben has been the face of converted rice since 1946. The idea for his character originated from the company founder who had heard about a deceased black farmer who grew quality rice. That is not the man pictured on Uncle Ben’s packaging. Frank Brown was a maitre d’ at a restaurant that the company’s owner frequented. Frank was offered Fifty dollars to have his image used on the box and received no royalties going forward. This is a direct example of using people of color for financial and economic gain without fully recognizing or crediting them for their contributions.

The US is no stranger to objectifying and silencing women. This is said to be depicted in the smiling, silent, subservient face of everyone’s favorite pancake mascot, Aunt Jemima. When a spike in support for her removal appeared, PepsiCo and Quaker decided to remove her image from their products. This move struck a nerve with the American public. The mascot had stood with their products for one hundred and thirty years and PepsiCo and Quaker have continued to state that their character was not based on any singular person. This is a true statement. There was never a real Aunt Jemima. She was based on the creation of a white man in blackface, a slave mammy of the plantation south. The minstrel character was named after a colloquialization of the phrase “ain’t your momma” regarding black slave women taking care of white children. The first woman to play her, Nancy Green, didn’t embody her until a few years after the character was coined. Originally a crude drawing of a mammy was used. Her status as Aunt Jemima was ended by Quaker after she refused to travel overseas to promote products. Following her employment by Quaker, she lived with her niece and nephew because she couldn’t afford her own home. She was far from wealthy, despite what many believe. Many women continued to play her for years but the character we have seen on bottles of the namesake syrup for the past thirty years was a composite figure created by a cartoonist after groups like the NAACP complained about the usage of a mammy figure for decades. What is truly upsetting is that Quaker erased all records of Nancy Green’s employment until the early 2000’s when Chicago historian Sherry Williams discovered her history. Nancy was buried in an unmarked grave. Williams contacted Quaker to request that they assist in paying for a proper tombstone, but they refused. Nevertheless, the money was raised and the stone was installed.

By now it would be expected that people are aware of why the product was rebranded but many have simply blamed “Cancel Culture” for the removal of a successful black woman for no real reason. This rhetoric is due to the continuation of misinformation on expectedly simple issues like mammies on syrup bottles. In wrongly explaining where the original representation came from, political operatives have continued to drive a wedge between the US and progress. Similar people have barraged informational journalists for trying to reveal the truth to their audiences. Many people today still believe that Aunt Jemima was a millionaire and her family was infuriated that she was removed from products when she never even existed in the first place. This issue goes further than just pancakes. This relates to the US’s long history of suppression of black voices. When the controversy arose surrounding Jemima’s image, the “woke left-wing liberals” were blamed for taking representation away from people of color in attempts to promote separation. This is not where the call to action came from. Black voices were the first cry for change regarding this topic. The NAACP was protesting that image from day one but more recently black women like the singer, KIRBY who was the first person on TikTok to bring attention to the racist nature of the branding just weeks after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Following that video, PepsiCo and Quaker finally rebranded. Many estimate that this issue was with the fact that the long-standing image of subservient black womanhood was being trifled with. Many suggest that the original purpose of using Jemima’s image was to remind consumers of the mammies they either grew up with or wish they had grown up with. 

The product was failing before Quaker introduced her image as a marketing tactic. Jemima was never intended to be seen as having any agency. She was not said to be the owner of the brand. Aunt Jemima was always meant to be a servant. Even though the company buffed and shined her image up due to continuous protests from the black community, Jemima remains what she has always been, a slave in a box. After all, that’s what she was created to be. Many confuse Jemima’s story with those of the women who played her. To do so is to discredit the lives of Nancy Green, Anna Short Harrington, Lillian Richard, and the many other women who played the pancake mascot. Consumers should be celebrating the legacy these women left while acknowledging that it is time to put this racist trope to rest. Quaker never properly honored or compensated the actresses and that is absolutely unacceptable. This is a complex issue tied to the legacy of black women in America and how their descendants grappled to issue in the following years. 

The term “Aunt Jemima” has been used to negatively refer to black women with seemingly no positive connotation. That is until she was removed. Countless people came to her defense when her image was questioned. The truth is the target of objectification was being erased and people were not okay with that. The same people who claim to support Aunt Jemima do not know about Madam CJ Walker, the real first black female millionaire. These people turn up their noses when the richest black woman in America, Oprah Winfrey, is mentioned. They also ignored Michelle Obama when she became the first black woman to become the first lady. Evidently, America does not like black women who can’t be silenced and objectified. That is exactly what the Aunt Jemima trope was. She was a smiling, loyal object to prop up on tables and be consumed. When black women said “that’s enough”, the media’s true feelings surfaced. We must continue to speak for black women who have been silenced because they are more than just a caricature to sell a product.