Reflecting on The Liberation of Aunt Jemima

Black people have, once again, had to fight for their rights this year; requesting equality and an end to police brutality. While politicians world-wide refused to take sufficient action on

these pressing issues, there have been many small steps taken by companies and organisations to end the casual discrimination that people are put through daily. On 17 June 2020, the famous pancake batter brand, Aunt Jemima, acknowledged their use of a racist stereotype on their packaging, setting a target for change by the end of the year. For African Americans, this is a famous symbol of the oppression and objectification of Black women, a reminder of their ancestors being used as ‘mammies’, an offensive name given to Black women who were nannies – or submissive care-givers – to white families in the South. Artist Betye Saar, has been commenting on the racist nature of the packaging for decades.

Influenced by the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, Saar began collecting racist images and objects, such as Aunt Jemima, Black Sambos and ‘pickaninnies’. Her aim was to transform and reclaim these images as positive symbols for African-Americans. In her most famous work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), she successfully reimagined Aunt Jemima, an image she describes as a “very black, ugly woman”, as a positive symbol of resilience and empowerment. Saar spoke about how a stereotype which was created about African-American women to reinforce the belief at the time that white people were superior to Black people. She believed that Jemima was “the figure that classifies all black women,” and hoped that the new meaning she had given the face would be more empowering than the original.

Saar assembled three different material elements depicting derogatory images of mammies. The material that stands out the most, a figurine of the Aunt Jemima which was originally made to be a pencil holder. She has replaced the pencils in Jemima’s hands for a rifle in one, and a grenade in the other, giving her the weapons of “an urban guerrilla”. The figurine’s lower body is indented by a photo of a mammy with a mixed-race child, a symbol of the sexual assault so

many Black women had to suffer through at the hand of their white slave owner. In the centre of the photo there is the raised fist, a symbol of resistance, referencing the Black Panther Party. The combination of derogatory images, symbols of abuse and the iconic raised fist creates a political critique of the power of visual stereotypes. Civil Rights activist Angela Davis later credited this piece with launching the Black Women’s Movement.

For Saar, this year saw the end of a 50-year battle against the racist logo and branding. She

responded on Instagram to the news that Aunt Jemima would be retiring the logo, writing: “She’s liberated! Finally at long last! And it’s about time!”

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