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The Briar Patch | Remembering Nancy Green

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“A great deal of what constitutes self-concept grows out of social images that are projected about people. … One of the consequences of oppression is the loss of control over the projection of those images. As you begin to lose control of those images, then usually the oppressor, or the power holder, creates images consistent with their objectives. And their objective, of course, is usually one to keep the powerless powerless, and to keep themselves powerful.”
—Na’im Akbar

“Aunt Jemima has become the ultimate symbol and personification of the Black cook, servant and mammy.”
—Michael D. Harris

I first read this quote about Aunt Jemima, and the quote attributed to psychologist Na’im Akbar, in one of the books that informed my graduate work: Michael D. Harris’ “Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation.” In addition to being an editor for the News, I am a visual artist and writer with an MFA in studio art and an MLA in liberal arts with a focus in creative writing and cultural studies. I was both an arts administrator and project manager, taught arts and humanities courses at both Sinclair Community College and Wilberforce University, including African American and African Art History for several years, and was project manager for the Wheeling Gaunt Sculpture Project here in the village. My focus of study has been, and is, race and visual representation. My MFA thesis included an exhibition and a written thesis, both entitled “Rhetorical Reclamation of the Black Female Body.”

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I’m actually somewhat embarrassed to be listing my “so-called” credentials; after all, we all have a wealth of collective knowledge that benefits our communities regardless our walks of life. But it’s through community praxis that I’ve spent much of my art career — as an artist, educator and administrator — grappling with the impact of racist stereotypes and tropes, as signified in popular culture, through the visual images with which we are constantly bombarded.

So, why am I going on about Aunt Jemima?

Last summer, a dear friend of mine purchased salt and pepper shakers, distorted depictions of Aunt Jemima — a historically complicated racist female trope that evolved during the period of enslavement of African people in this country — from a local business, Rose & Sal, and gave them to me. I’d explained to her that I saw them on the shelf myself, after another person living in town hipped me to them.

I tend to “rescue” racist memorabilia off the shelves of antique and vintage stores when I come across them, but was disappointed to learn that these items, along with other items depicting stereotypical images of other cultural groups including Indigenous and Asian people were being sold in the village. Aunt Jemima shakers, with all their historical baggage of racism and sexism, were on display, along with the other styles of salt and pepper shakers, glass, crystal, etc., without historical context related to meaning and representation.

OK, honestly, I can’t say that I was surprised. And by the way — this column isn’t going to end with me calling anyone racist — I will not entertain unapologetic and tired riffs denying the harm caused by the perpetuation of these dangerous stereotypes and their demand in the collector’s market, especially when my ancestors’ actual bodies were sold based on market demand, and super especially because the first image of Aunt Jemima on the iconic Quaker Oats pancake boxes were of a real-life human being — a Black woman named Nancy Green.

A bit of history about Quaker Oats and Nancy Green.

According to Harris, the idea of trademarking the image of Aunt Jemima sprang from a minstrel show in 1889 in St. Joseph, Missouri, when Charles L. Rutt, one of the owners of the Pearl Milling Company, “developers of a ready-mix pancake flour,” saw a “cakewalk” (dance) performance to the song “Old Aunt Jemima.” The cakewalk is not the focus here, but I encourage people to do some research on the dance’s origins. The song was written by white, blackface minstrel, Billy Kersands. In addition to being a minstrel, apparently Kersands also performed wearing aprons and a bandana wrapped around his head to further the distortion of a Black female servant. Here are the ridiculous lyrics:

My old missus promise me
Old Aunt Jemima, oh, oh, oh
When she died she’d set me free
Old Aunt Jemima, oh, oh, oh
She lived so long her head got bald
Old Aunt Jemima, oh, oh, oh
She swore she would not die at all
Old Aunt Jemima, oh, oh, oh

The pancake flour, along with the Aunt Jemima brand, was eventually purchased by Quaker Oats, who evolved the look of Aunt Jemima for over 100 years, including images of her without her trademark bandana, before her retirement by the company’s parent company, PepsiCo. Inc., who, in 2021, renamed the business The Pearl Milling Company, after the original owners who came up with the brand in the first place. It’s truly wild how this stuff comes full circle.

There is, in fact, a huge market for racist memorabilia. Collectors range in ethnicities and come from all walks of life — from celebrities to my sister-in-law, a professor whose sole purpose for her collection is educational. This type of memorabilia is also housed in museums all over the country. When I was teaching college students, I often utilized examples of the memorabilia as a point of comparison with photos of Black people who lived during that same time — elegantly attired and proud no matter their social position — to make a point. How people see us can be vastly different from the way we see, and know ourselves to be.

And art, very much a language, has a complicated and complicit racist history in this part of the world. You see, in many ways, art is one of the last bastions of propaganda that pushes racist and imperialist ideology through our visual engagement in society. Nowadays, the added danger is that we can deconstruct and construct people’s humanity, at the whim of an AI keystroke.

These images have instilled generations of bias into our society and have never really gone away. I suggest reading Jessica Thomas’ June 22 Unsolicited Opinions column,  “Keep racist items out of stores.” 

“I graduated from Greenon High School, a short distance from Yellow Springs. There, I had two nicknames: watermelon lips and Aunt Jemima,” Jessica, who is a millennial, wrote.

Every time you see the twisted garish distortion imbued in these racist objects, remember that these images were based on a real-life human being who resembled some of your fellow villagers.

Aunt Jemima’s real name was Nancy Green. Say her name.

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2 Responses to “The Briar Patch | Remembering Nancy Green”

  1. LizaJane says:

    My mate says that “Brair” is derogatory slang and a racial slur aimed at uneducated Appalachian folk; I certainly hope that isn’t how it is meant in the YS News as many of those people, those with Appalachian roots do subscribe!

    Best wishes! Good luck in the new year! Hope it all works out!

  2. Point Made says:

    “Thank you” for another educational and informative article!

    I am truly sorry to hear that Jessica encountered inexcusable bullying at nearby high school. I can only hope that ALL schools address ANY kind of bullying promptly and honor each student with equal opportunity to excel!

    (One of Yellow Springs’ favorite sons, Mark Crockett, was also a GHS alumna I’m told.)

    Could you– would you–please take that offensive photograph of Ms. Green down now?

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