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Quaker Oats To Retire Aunt Jemima Brand Named After Racist Stereotype

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Symbols of racism, both big and small, are coming down in the plazas of state Capitols, the campuses of universities and in the breakfast aisle of the supermarket. The Aunt Jemima brand is being discontinued. That's the line of pancake mix and syrup owned by Quaker Oats. The company admitted today that the name originally came from a racist stereotype. Before she was ever a brand, Aunt Jemima was a popular minstrel show character performed in blackface. For most of her 130-year history as a pancake salesperson, she was overweight with big lips, white teeth, a calico dress and a headscarf.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Aunt Jemima) Well, here's a true word, Mr. Lyle. The happy folks don't measure time by years, but by the smiles they have spread in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yes, Aunt Jemima.

CHANG: Michael W. Twitty is a food writer and historian. He joins us now.

Welcome.

MICHAEL W TWITTY: Hi. How are you?

CHANG: Good. Thanks for joining us. So I'm curious - did you ever think you would see this day when the world would say goodbye to Aunt Jemima?

TWITTY: Actually, no, I did not. And I see that people are big mad about this. It's just an extraordinary moment in terms of the reversal of symbols. It's a good start.

CHANG: A good start.

TWITTY: Good start.

CHANG: Well, let's start with a basic history question. Who was Aunt Jemima? I mean, what does she represent to you?

TWITTY: So as someone who is a historian of the 18th and 19th centuries who works with food, Aunt Jemima represents a barrier - a barrier between me and the real truth that food was used as resistance, connecting us to our cultural traditions from Africa. But when - sometimes when people see me - and especially when they see black women who are in the historical interpretation field - they resort to these stereotypes, black and white. And on the black side, it's like a trauma. Like, oh, look at you sustaining that stereotype. And for white people, it can be a happy-go-lucky memory that they try to put into play when they interact with someone like me. But this idea of the happy slave that's loyal and friendly and only lives to serve you is a ghost that needs to go.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, obviously, getting rid of the Aunt Jemima brand isn't the sort of systemic change that, say, like, Black Lives Matter activists are calling for. But she was a symbol. And I'm wondering what it means to you personally, as a black man who works in the food industry, to see a major food company retire this stereotype. How much does it matter to you in the grand scheme of things?

TWITTY: For me, it means that the food industry is beginning to take very seriously the fact that our racial demons and past do pervade our current existence. You know, when I was a little boy in D.C., my first N-word moment wasn't really an N-word moment. It was - I was 3 or 4 years old, and two white kids ran down the street in front of the house that I lived in with my grandparents and my mother and my family. And I remember those two white boys and the white girl said to us, hey, Uncle Ben. Hey, Aunt Jemima.

CHANG: Wow.

TWITTY: I got upset 'cause a little kid - but I didn't realize that that was, like, my first moment of just being called out as other.

CHANG: Wow. Well, black food culture in history is a major part of American culture and cuisine. And you have dedicated your career to celebrating and preserving that history. Can you talk about how the food industry can better honor the legacy of black chefs without trafficking in stereotypes?

TWITTY: First, employing more African Americans and hearing our voices and also, you know, in general, across the - I mean, across the spectrum of how we portray ethnic groups in food. It's a lazy shorthand, and the solution to it is understanding that, yes, it is that deep for some people. They are deeper than the skin. They're in the bone and flesh of this country's original sin. And until people take that to heart, Aunt Jemima's not going anywhere. She's going to morph. And that's what I want people to understand. She's going to morph and not disappear. So this is a nice first effort, but we have to go beyond symbolism and into systemics (ph) to make real, lasting change.

CHANG: Michael W. Twitty is a food historian and a James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author.

Thank you very much for spending time with us today.

TWITTY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.