Aunt Jemima: Black Exception in 1893 Chicago's World Fair

16 May

Aunt Jemima - Nancy Green

In my previous post Lack of Black in Chicago 1893… or Chicago 2016, I shared that black people were not allowed or welcomed at the 1893 World’s Fair.  That wasn’t totally true.  Generally speaking, that was consensus.  There were a couple exceptions.

Some African Americans were invited because they represented stereotypes, not progress, in the black race.  Nancy Green was one such person.  This 57-year-old former slave was hired to become a live advertisement for Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix.  You’re probably thinking, “What’s wrong with that?  At least she’s working.”  On the surface, that may seem like a positive thing.  However, her image was that of a stereotypical plantation mammy with her large jovial size and bandanna.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, she entertained audiences by telling stories of plantation life while flipping pancakes.

The authors of The Reason Why the Colored American is not in The World’s Columbian Exposition noted that Ms. Green’s performance was a hit.  This is not surprising.  Historically speaking, black people have been sources of entertainment and mockery for white people.  Nothing much has changed.  Today, many of the shows starring black people are comedies or the characters are in low-wage or stereotypical roles.  The positive, progression ones are totally exceptions.  However, I will give credit to the media for trying to do a little better.  Just a little bit.

Anyway, I did a little research after reading about Nancy Green, and learned that Aunt Jemima was brought alive once again at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. “They hired Anna Robinson, described as a large, gregarious woman with the face of an angel. She traveled the country promoting Aunt Jemima until her death in 1951.” Still, the mammy image lived on.
Aunt Jemima

The company did not change the mammy image until 1989 which was over 100 years after bringing Aunt Jemima to life.  The bandana was replaced with pearl earrings and a more respectable appearance.  I contacted the company to find out why it took over 100 years to change the image; they have yet to get back to me.

There were Black people at the fair. Unfortunately, those hired for entertainment purposes and not progress were the norm rather than the exception.

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