Quaker Oats announced on June 17, 2020, that it was removing the traditional “Aunt Jemima” name and picture from its box of pancake mix and other breakfast products, The iconic figure, round smiling face and a headscarf, had been familiar to most of us all our lives. Now, in wake of renewed civil unrest about the issue of racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and increasing sensitivity to racial injustice, the name was being retired. Many on the right raised a great hue and cry. They argued that Aunt Jemima was a cultural icon. She had been a historical figure and now was being erased by the forces of liberal political correctness. Indeed, the current occupant of the White House more generally rails against what he vilifies as the cancel culture and attempt by the radical left to erase our history and heritage.

Wait a minute. Aunt Jemima was a historical caricature, a personification of the cheerful slave who perhaps most closely resembled the character of Mammy in the 1939 film "Gone with the Wind". Here Hattie McDaniel played the part of the clever and loyal house slave. Her performance earned her the first Oscar awarded to an African American at the 1940 Academy Awards. The film also caricatured the gauzy, saccharine, and totally false representation of the antebellum South as a happy place, where slaves sang idyllically on warm summer evenings and loyally served out their lives on plantations – in contrast to the brutal reality of slavery in this country. It was this misrepresentation and mischaracterization of the history of slavery that brought down Aunt Jemima, not some liberal, politically correct plot.

As far as the first Aunt Jemima, a freed slave named Nancy Green is concerned, her greatest achievement was said to be her appearance in character at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. There she cooked pancakes for the visitors while spinning stories and songs of the old South, that happy place of contented slaves. Green was later succeeded by at least eight other Aunt Jemima's, all with the same general appearance, all with the same mission. Now they are gone. And rightly so.

In a related phenomenon, there is the issue of the Confederate flag and statues, and the street and school names. And the claims that once again history and heritage are being destroyed. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, hogwash. Rather than destroying our history, the demand is that we confront its reality. The generals, officers and men who fought for the Confederacy were traitors to their country. They knew it when they participated in the secession. They knew it when they surrendered in 1865. For well over 150 years their legacy as gallant leaders of a noble but lost cause has held sway in much of our country’s mythology and certainly in its textbooks. It is time to change all that. The Confederate monuments are coming down. The Confederate flag is being banned in public places, all to great consternation in some circles.

I would add just one fact here. Much of the argument turns on whether we regard the Confederate generals as traitors. The most notorious traitor from the American side in the Revolutionary War was Benedict Arnold. Consider this. You just do not see that many statues of Benedict Arnold on village greens, nor do you see many Benedict Arnold highways, or Benedict Arnold high schools dotting the landscape. So here we are. We need to sort all this out, hopefully in an orderly and legal fashion. But we need to come to grips with our history. The North fought to preserve the Union. The South fought to preserve slavery.

Does this mean condemning all Confederate generals, and soldiers for that matter, as evil people, or even necessarily racists? Of course not. General and later President Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs the following concerning General Lee and the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865 at Appomattox:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though it was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”


Dr. Keck, a retired U.S. Air Force historian with a doctorate in history, lives in Basye.