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Fight the Power: On Aunt Jemima and other representations we need to tear down

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Protests around the country responding to the death of George Floyd have produced swift changes.

Unfortunately, more so with breakfast condiments than police reform, but we'll take it.

Quaker Oats, sensing the pulse of the movement, recently decided to retire its Aunt Jemima character because it is “based on a racial stereotype.” No s#!t, Sherlock.

12 years ago, a 20-something me with dreads and probably a dashiki sent an email to Quaker Oats telling it that the Aunt Jemima character was offensive and racist. With the company now deciding to retire her, it was a great time to bring out the receipts.

In its response, signed “Brandon, Quaker Consumer Response,” the company said that its research indicated “Aunt Jemima is one of America's most recognized brands and is viewed favorably by consumers of various ethnic backgrounds.” Brandon even hit me with an “In fact,” as if coming up with dope lines in a rap battle. It was a far cry from the self-awareness the company is pretending to have now.

While overdue, the Aunt Jemima move opens the door for so much more. Truthfully, we need to change everything from the Washington Redskins name and logo (and truthfully any other team that stereotypes Native Americans) to fellow syrup maven Mrs. Buttersworth to monuments and street names commemorating Confederates and white supremacists.

I'll never forget when Questlove was in Columbia for The Roots to play the State Fair, and he tweeted, “Wow. There really is a building dedicated to Strom Thurmond down here....” The former U.S. senator and South Carolina governor was also once a presidential candidate representing the segregationist Dixiecrat party.

I'm just glad Questlove didn't also notice Johnston’s Strom Thurmond High School (mascot: Rebels), the Strom Thurmond statue on the Statehouse grounds, the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center at the University of South Carolina, and the J. Strom Thurmond Freeway. And it’s not just Strom — Ben Tillman, an avowed white supremacist and lynching defender, has his own statue on the Statehouse grounds that’s very much in the crosshairs right now.

“There’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the n#!ger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” Thurmond once said. Turns out he was wrong, and now those things honoring him need to go.

When I think of all this, I think of the Brandon email from Aunt Jemima. When he said the syrup brand was viewed favorably by consumers of various ethnic backgrounds, he meant that the company could afford to offend whoever it offends. When we talk about the Cleaveland Indians’ old Chief Wahoo, we know it's wrong, but maybe Native Americans are so few and far between that sports teams can afford to offend them. Like Chris Rock said, when was the last time you saw an entire Native American family eating at a Red Lobster? (And who the hell still goes to Red Lobster?)

When ESPN analyst Bomani Jones did an interview on the network in 2016 wearing a shirt that recast Chief Wahoo as a white man and changed the team name to “Caucasians,” people were outraged, somehow perplexed that he could wear something making a caricature of an entire race — well, one race, at least.

HBO Max recently removed Gone With the Wind from the titles in Turner Classic Movies, intending to bring it back buttressed by supplementary material. I remember being told as a child that it was a classic movie, and I watched the almost four-hour romanticizing of the Civil War and antebellum culture and hated all of its Black representation. Hattie McDaniel played Mammy (dressed like Aunt Jemima) in the movie and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first time the award went to a black woman.

She wasn't allowed in the hotel where the award ceremony was held and had to get special permission to be there with her partner and white agent. Organizers made sure she was far away from the crowds because of the hotel's segregation rules. After the ceremony, she wasn't allowed to any of the Oscar parties. In her last will and testament, she wanted to be buried at the Hollywood Cemetery (now the Hollywood Forever Cemetery), a place where Hollywood greats and, of course, Oscar winners get to have a final resting place. Her request was refused, once more due to segregation.

I have sorrow for her story, but hated the character. It made me think that if you played a servant, a stereotypical slave, you would be rewarded. And this is why we hate Aunt Jemima.

I offer a solution for your breakfast: Find Michele's Syrups, from Michele's Foods. Sold by a Black-owned company based out of Illinois with the face of a Black woman on the product, it’s something I would love to have in my pantry. I have some bottles on the way, and breakfast is gonna be lit.

Preach Jacobs is a musician, artist and activist and founder of Cola-Con and indie label Sounds Familiar Records. You can hear his podcasts and read more work at FightThePower.co.

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