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.
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.