An online petition is calling on PepsiCo to shelve the name and character associated with its Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix and syrup.
The petition, created by longtime television producer Dan Gasby and launched on 19 June 2017, seeks to replace Aunt Jemima with Gasby’s wife and business partner, 67-year-old entrepreneur Barbara Elaine Smith, better known as B. Smith, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three years ago.
Gasby said in the petition that the Aunt Jemima branding represents “a symbol that is offensive to Black women, and to all women,” and points out that it is not immediately visible in the company site’s listing of its products:
Here’s a litmus test – ask women: would they be proud to win a hypothetical Aunt Jemima College Scholarship? Would they attend an Aunt Jemima panel at a parenting Conference? Would anyone even share a post that they won the Aunt Jemima Recipe Contest? Is being compared to Aunt Jemima in any way a compliment? The answers all around are no.
The following year a black actress, Nancy Green, was hired to portray the character. PepsiCo acquired the brand when it bought the Quaker Oats Company in 2001. In August 2014, the great-grandsons of Anna Short Harrington — who played the role between 1933 and 1955 — accused PepsiCo in a lawsuit of refusing to pay her royalties for 60 years, despite the use of her image for selling the product.
The company has also faced longtime criticism for the use of the character, which has been described as a “mammy” figure. In a 2007 interview, author Maurice Manring (whose book Slave in a Box chronicled Aunt Jemima’s history) compared the imagery associated with the character to Smith’s self-marketing:
I don’t see the main component of Aunt Jemima advertising in what she’s doing. Aunt Jemima advertising played on a certain type of nostalgia and a certain type of racial nostalgia, particularly in the first half of the 20th century about how great plantation life was and how great it was to -literally, to have someone like Aunt Jemima who would make the pancakes or whatever for you. And what Ms. Smith seems to be selling more is in the line of the modern lifestyle guru whose efficiency of doing everything is something you’re supposed to emulate and not something that you’re supposed to simply employ.
According to Gasby, PepsiCo has ignored the couple’s request to meet regarding the proposed branding change. He argued on the petition website that Smith’s success shows that there is “no reason for the unacceptable Aunt Jemima throwback.” Smith, who has worked as a television host and a model, has also written three books and owned three restaurants carrying the B. Smith name, the last of which closed in January 2015.
Smith was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2013. She recalled the moment she learned she had the disease during a March 2015 interview, saying:
I had tears in my eyes. But at the same time I also said, “I’m not going to give to it. I am going to fight.”
The following year she and her husband released a book they co-authored with Michael Shnayerson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine, chronicling their experiences dealing with the disease.
Neither Gasby nor PepsiCo immediately responded to requests for comment.