Skip to content

Ezerae Ham is a rising senior Art Major at McDaniel College. I invited her to conduct research with me for an (eventual) digital history site on African American Art and Artists. This is an entry that will find its way to that eventual site. Feel free to comment on her work.

Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima

by Ezerea Ham, McDaniel College

Betye Saar is an African American artist who pioneered the idea of using found relics to reconstruct stereotypes of African Americans through her art. Most of the relics she found and used were originally created to accentuate common stereotypes and further push those ideas on the American society. One of these stereotyped figures is the “mammy” figure, which is a stereotype used to describe the Black nursemaids of the old South. This stereotype is so deeply engrained into our culture that it is present in one of the most recognizable breakfast brands: Aunt Jemima. Betye Saar and other revolutionary artists had a lot to say about the use of this stereotype to sell and promote a pancake mix.

Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (from:

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima is arguably Saar’s most influential and groundbreaking piece of art. Angela Davis herself deemed this art piece to have started the Black women’s movement. Saar took this figurine that she found in a flea market- whose original use was to be a notepad and pencil holder for housewives- and armed it with a couple of guns and a multitude of Black Nationalism symbols that give her a sense of empowerment. This strapped up Aunt Jemima figure is a direct opposite of the warm, loving, cheerful nature of the stereotypical mammy figure. By juxtaposing these powerful symbols with a submissive stereotype, Saar is making people look past the docile role these nursemaids had to take on and realize that they are actual women with emotions and needs.

The Aunt Jemima brand and image was actually inspired by a blackface minstrel comedic show rather than being based on a real Black woman. The creators of the brand went to one of these minstrel shows where the song, “Old Aunt Jemima” was being performed by a blackface comedy team dressed in aprons and red bandanas- which was reminiscent of the traditional Southern cook. The creators decided to use this name and stereotype for their brand in order to better appeal to housewives.







Marcus Sessoms is a rising junior Kinesiology Major at McDaniel College. I invited him to conduct research with me for an (eventual) digital history site on African American Art and Artists. This is an entry that will find its way to that eventual site. Feel free to comment on his work.


by Marcus Sessoms

Continuing from the spring semester and over summer, I have researched on the topic of African American stereotypes. I focused on the role of watermelon as a stereotype involving the idea that “every black person loves watermelon.”

In my research I have discovered that this connection between black people and watermelon stems from the time when slaves won their emancipation during the civil war. After the war, free blacks grew, ate, and sold watermelons. That is one way that freed slaves made their own money to provide for themselves and their families since they could not get any real jobs during this time, especially in the south where they were newly emancipated. Watermelon grows well in the south because the soil is very dry. Watermelon also needs a hot and humid climate. Because it was easy to grow in the south, many newly freed African Americans turned to this crop to make money and feed their families.

Thus, watermelon became a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by the blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. The racist trope of grinning, cartoonish blacks eating watermelon exploded in American pop culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. In America, watermelon came to symbolizes uncleanliness because eating is so messy. Through stereotyping, the watermelon also came to be equated with laziness, since growing watermelon is so easy, and to eat and enjoy it, you must sit down to consume it.  

The stereotype about watermelon did not just describe former slaves and African Americans. At the height Europeans’ emigration to America in the mid to late nineteenth-century, the typical watermelon-eater was an Italian or Arab peasant. Furthermore, in Egypt in 1801, the British occupiers noted that watermelon was a poor Arab’s feast and a meager substitute for a proper meal. In the port city of Rosetta, a British soldier is recorded as saying he saw local peasants eating watermelons “ravenously… as if afraid the passer-by was going to snatch them away.” He further noted with some disgust at how watermelon rinds littered the streets.

Note from Gretchen McKay

In future summers, I hope to build on this work by Marcus and Ezerea, by highlighting how some artists confront the stereotypes by using them in new ways, such as this assemblage by Betye Saar from 2002. Ezerae's post highlights this. And I hope to have more work shown and researched by artists who embrace the narrative to change it, such as this article from the Chicago Tribune from 1991 that discusses an exhibition in which artists face these stereotypes.