Aunt Jemima Retires, Colonel Sanders Soldiers On

Aunt Jemima is gone with the wind. In the wake of the civil unrest following coronavirus restrictions and the police killing of George Floyd, the Quaker Oats Company decided to retire the Aunt Jemima brand.

old and new versions of aunt jemima

The popular brand of high fructose corn syrup has come under criticism recently for its use of a “mammy” racial stereotype. Whether this announcement is shrewd PR meant to capitalize on popular sentiment, an example of Millennial “cancel culture,” or a corporate person exercising some anomalous type of corporate conscience, the forced retirement decision is remarkable in a number of ways.

For one thing, there is the fact that PepsiCo — which owns Quaker Oats, which owns Aunt Jemima — is so enormously profitable that their executives found it easier to just let the mature brand go than to grapple with ways to substantively address their history of profiting from racism. In so doing, they “used up” all the profit they could gain from this form of racism, and discarded it in the name of good citizenship. This helps sweep a whole history under the rug.

It is also remarkable that at no point between the Civil Rights Era and today, did anybody in a position of corporate responsibility take cognizance of what their brand name represented — or how it was represented. Nobody at Aunt Jemima, at Quaker Oats, or at Pepsi. That’s a very slow rate of social progress.

In response to a low-fat health craze in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their name to KFC to avoid the word “fried.” A quick, shrewd turnaround by the executives at KFC, which, at the time was run by PepsiCo (and which now has an exclusive business relationship with PepsiCo).

The KFC spokesman, Colonel Sanders, recently appeared in televised ads with another syrup person of color, Mrs. Butterworth.

Colonel Sanders is a “Kentucky Colonel,” not a military colonel. It is an honorary title bestowed by several Southern US states, evoking images of the time when the Southern economy was largely organized around slave labor on plantations run by a landed aristocracy. In Gone with the Wind, real-life Colonel Clark Gable typifies this image in the character of Confederate Captain Rhett Butler — along with the sentimentality for a bygone era that the image evokes.

Colonel Sanders appeared in a recent advertisement aired during the NFL season, cross-marketing the KFC brand with the Mrs. Butterworth brand.

In the ad, the Southern Gentleman is shown sneaking up behind his “mammy” at work in the kitchen. He embraces her. Presumably they have intercourse. In the historical context in which we are to understand this liaison occurring, one can reasonably conclude we are witnessing a rape, which was common in those days as a means of population control.

In tone, the television spot is very lighthearted and playful, yet it also illustrates ways in which the media uses images from a racist history without addressing that history. And the ways in which these images function are both visible and invisible, the product of massive organizations and many people making decisions that are somehow never looked at.