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The Story of Aunt Jemima & Aunt Delilah

Updated: Jan 16

Mammies, Marketing, Movies, & Munchies

When we hear the word mammy, what do we think of? Anyone from Ireland may lovingly think of their mother, “mammy.” Irish or not, fans of the hit series that everyone should watch, Bad Sisters, may hear the voice of antagonist John-Paul muttering “Mammy” to control his wife. But anyone who learned anything about US history, specifically during the 1800s, knows that Mammy is a stereotype birthed out of slavery depicting an overly kind, plump, dark-skinned Black woman who works for a white family. 

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in White Savior film "The Help"
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in White Savior film "The Help"

In pop culture today, we can picture Viola Davis as a mammy in the white savior film The Help. Or Octavia Spencer in any of her roles as a maid, nurse, or cleaner––characters she’s played 21 times, two of which displayed Oscar-nominated performances. For decades, the mammy stereotype had been critiqued decade, but mainstream society quickly dismissed the rising disapproval, that was until the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. 

One of the largest name brands today was birthed back in 1888, The Pearl Milling Company. Sounds familiar? Doubtful. The name doesn’t really have the “thing” to brand a company successfully for 135 years. But we HAVE heard of it; it’s internationally known: Aunt Jemima. In the blink of an eye, the company forever changed the idea of American breakfast, solidified a strong brand image, and actively perpetuated and profited off of racism. 

The 1925 logo

A year after the company’s inception, they started producing Aunt Jemima’s signature pancake mix. But becoming the famous pancake box wasn’t as easy as changing the name. While the product was brilliant and original, the name Aunt Jemima came from slavery and Black-face comedy shows. So, they had to market their new name as homey, positive, and friendly. This is when they leaned into the “mammy” stereotypes of the times. Wanting to connect this familiarity to their white consumer base, the company hired a real Black woman, Nancy Green, to bring Aunt Jemima to life.

Ms. Green was born into slavery in Kentucky and moved up north to work in Chicago as a maid. But in 1893, she represented Aunt Jemimas at the World’s Columbian Exposition (the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage). She made pancakes and shared pre-scripted stories of the Old South. The brand name strengthened as it romanticized the Civil War. The owners officially changed the brand's name to Aunt Jemima Mills in 1914. 

In the coming years, selling the happy-go-lucky mammy figure was vital, and the company incorporated cutout paper dolls in the pancake box and sold a rag doll collection and cookie jars to support this “idealistic” society. At the heart of their marketing strategy were real Black women posing as Aunt J. The Aunt Jemima actors were a key marketing scheme, helping further the company’s glorification of slavery. For example, Aunt Jemima’s House of Pancakes Disneyland location included Aunt Jemima and Colonel Higbee, a character centered around the stories of local enslavers. Here, they told stories about the good ol’ days.

Eventually, society’s viewpoint started to shift the company’s image due to technology-free ground-swelling.  In 1968, the public finally began criticizing aspects of the brand image. So, they reduced some pivotal mammy stereotypes by lightening her skin tone, adding a headband (instead of a bandana), and slimming her face. And in 1989, with growing sentiment that Aunt Jemima was the female version of an “Uncle Tom,” they redesigned her again. This time, they removed the plaid headband for pearl earrings and a lace collar, adding grey touches to her hair—becoming the modern-day mammy figure we know today. But, despite the apparent parallels between these two Black caricatures, Aunt Jemima kept their infamous name…until the power of social media.

A groundswell is when people come together over the internet and collectively state opinions. Today, everyday people have easy and unparalleled access, connecting people across cities, countries, and continents. As our social and cultural climates shifted, a subdivision of groundswell has been created. Anti-racist groundswelling is a social and cultural movement in which people use technology in order to band together against conventional corporations with the goal of dismantling current racist sentiment, like the BLM movement.

In the aftermath of George Floyd in 2020, the US began reckoning with racism, and many, many white liberals took off their rose-colored glasses and scrutinized the history and truth behind Aunt Jemima’s smile. In 2021, the product was officially changed to the Pearl Millings Company, regressing back to the company's origins. 

New name. Same great recipe! Aunt Jemima.

And while it’s impressive to think that Aunt Jemima/the Pearl Millings Company listened to their consumers and adapted to societal pressures. They only adapted when forced. 

In 1934, John M. Stahl’s film Imitation of Life critiqued the company and the mammy stereotype through the film’s storyline. The protagonist, Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), devises a business focusing on the skills of her maid, Delilah Johnson's (Louise Beavers) resources. Bea utilizes Delilah’s grandmother’s pancake recipe, culinary expertise, and face, ultimately selling over 32 million boxes of pancake mix and reaping most of the profits.  Sounds familiar? 

Aunt Jemima was built on the backs of hardworking Black Americans but lined the profits of their white bosses. 

Beware: The following section uses flowery film phrases to show that Imitation of Life (1934) used coded language and blocking to criticize Aunt Jemima and concepts that still plagues our society today.  

Delilah’s continual self-sacrifice is supported by nonverbal communication, as the film implements melodramatic stylized mise-en-scène. The film depicts racial ideology intertwined with capitalism and the repercussions of economic classing, ultimately illustrating systemic racial strife. Forming the film in such a way supports John Mercer’s melodrama theories about social criticism: capitalism and the patriarchy.   

When Delilah and Bea begin the first steps of starting their business, they need a name and mascot to create signage for the storefront. Bea instructs Delilah to smile, and Delilah's initial confusion forces Bea to ask again. Here, she gestures her hands to make the curvature of a big smile; understanding the task, Delilah straightens her posture and slightly tilts her head to make her demeanor more friendly. Once more, Bea asks her to smile: this time bigger. With fake enthusiasm, Delilah creates a caricature of herself; she emits a burst of intense laughter, plastering a smile across her face. This draws parallels to how Nancy Green romanized stories of slavery while acting as Aunt Jemima.

Finally smiling properly, Bea directs Delilah on how to turn her face. Here, the camera pushes in on Delilah’s beaming smile, and the frame turns from a cool blue to a warm golden tint. The mise-en-scène, specifically the blocking and filter, critiques the film’s larger theme of controlling and profiting from Blackness. Bea needs and manages Delilah’s grand smile to further her business’ monetary returns. Bea creates a cartoon mascot of Delilah, minimizing her humanity as she has been branded into a product marketing technique. 

Beyond this, “the burden of solving social problems is placed largely on the female characters. In most instances, the female characters in melodramas attempt to solve these problems and maintain the family through repression of their own and the other acts of self-sacrifice” (Mercer p25). 

“Mammies” often sacrifice parts of themselves to care for others, Delilah specifically sacrifices her name and face to provide for her boss and spare her child from servitude. As the business grows, Delilah actively sacrifices her freedom from Bea and “Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour” by choosing never to develop her own political viewpoints even as her daughter, Peola (Fredi Washington), challenges societal racial norms verbally and physically––by her light skin tone. 

Furthermore, props depict how the business continues to expand, going from manually filling boxes with the pasquinade of Delilah to an industrial setup and a glowing build board of Aunt Delilah flipping a pancake. However, as the props describe the brand’s growth, the mascot stands still, highlighting how Delilah’s place in the world is stagnant. 

As the company succeeds, Bea’s economic class rises, and the set underscores the faults in capitalism. In Bea’s mansion, for example, the pair walks in sync towards the stairs while they talk about Peola’s struggle. However, when Bea reaches the ascending stairwell, Delilah veers to the right and utilizes the descending staircase; this scene depicts Bea’s upward societal momentum and illustrates how Delilah’s unchanged stature results in losing power as the privilege gap between the two becomes even more vast.

This “‘family melodrama’ offered a striking instance where the filmic system could be seen to buckle under the weight of ideological contradiction, exposing the failings of capitalism and/or the patriarchy” (Mercer p20). This scene emphasizes the racism inherent in capitalism. This corporation is founded on Delilah's hard work and essence and her ancestral inheritance: the recipe. Therefore, the company is inextricably linked to generations of Black culture. But despite the astounding success of “Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour,” Delilah doesn’t claim the influence tied to this achievement. And she sacrifices the small amount she does earn by leaving it to Peola, despite the hardships within their relationship. 

While Bea and Delilah push the hegemony of patriarchal society, they are forced to stay within the bounds of  “American society, like all advanced western capitalist societies, is characterized by divisions of class, gender, race, sex, and ethnicity, the purpose of the dominant ideology is to establish and maintain a consensus, valid for all members of society” (Mercer, p20). 

 For example, rather than understanding Delilah’s actions as the doting maid or mammy, her character could understand and see herself as equal to Bea. Despite being Bea’s maid and not earning comparable wages for her business contributions, they are both pushing the bounds of the patriarchy by not relying on men. Therefore, she walks with Bea in the hopes that she will one day go upstairs. 

Bea headed upstairs, to bed. Delilah going downstairs to her room.
Bea headed upstairs, to bed. Delilah going downstairs to her room.

However, due to the embedded racism within Western capitalist societies, held up by Bea, Delilah is forced to retreat below. Here, Delilah sacrifices her societal status once more by never asking for more and outwardly challenging norms. While the characters must be influenced by hegemonic traditions, the set and blocking allow for multiple interpretations of ways the film challenges societal norms. 

20 years after The Pearls Milling Company branded themselves as Aunt Jemima, Imitation of Life was released, conveying and opposing social conventions such as racism, capitalism, and the patriarchy, in a time where such things were rarely talked about, let alone critiqued.

Don’t let the fancy film terminology deter you from understanding the inextricable link between Nancy Green and her fellow actors in the live portrayal of Aunt Jemima and Aunt Delilah. There is no doubt that the real woman sacrificed themselves for their families’ survival. The story utilizes Delilah’s continual sacrifices to provide for her daughter, as well as illuminating the inequities in racism and capitalism in order to expose the truth behind one of America’s most notable brands. 

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