The direct inspiration for Aunt Jemima originates from a minstrelsy/vaudeville song of the same name. Chris L. Rutt of the Pearl Milling Company saw the song being sung by blackface performers Baker & Farrell wearing an apron and kerchief, and appropriated the character.
Aunt Jemima is depicted as a plump, smiling, bright-eyed, African-American woman, originally wearing a kerchief over her hair. She was represented as a slave and was the most commonplace representation of the stereotypical mammy" character. (SOURCE)
I've been listening to "Gardening the Soul," an interview with Alice Walker. The author and womanist has an interesting view of the much-maligned character of Aunt Jemima, who she sees as a Black Madonna:
"In life there are needs that people have spiritually...for things like goddesses. But when you dominate a group of people, you tend to destroy or distort their goddesses or their gods. But if these goddesses and gods are very powerful, they will survive in some other form. And so, I came to understand that Aunt Jemima, who is this big, black, fat woman in a head rag with hoop earrings and a big, wide smile, was really the goddess who had been transformed from whatever she was in Africa to this mammy figure that people in the South especially had around them and could not live without.
"...The nurturing part of her is the part that she was kind of stuck in in the South,
because that was the part that white Southerners wanted. They wanted someone to take care of their children. But in her own household, before she came to this country, she would have had other characteristics. That is the patriarchal tradition to chop goddesses up into parts, so that you never have a whole figure. You just have someone who is the goddess of love...the goddess of this...the goddess of that...
"You can begin to see aspects of the goddess all around you when you really pay attention...I had been musing about the figure of Aunt Jemima and the way that it has been used as a figure to make black women feel ashamed. And then I was in the airport in Texas, looking at all of these Aunt Jemima figures and then I went to the cafeteria and there were all these black women serving food. And it was very clear to me that these were women who, if nobody was watching...if I had been hungry and I didn't have any money, they would not have let me starve in front of their eyes, because they are people of nurturing. They would have given me food...these black women...Aunt Jemimas...goddesses...whatever. It's just not their way."
Walker's words (as usual), got me thinking, questioning my revulsion for and embarrassment over the Aunt Jemima image, the icon of the mammy archetype. Why am I mad at Jemima? It's not her fault that society views her through the lens of its racial and gender biases. Her burden is my burden, too.
It's not Jemima's fault that that her skill in the "womanly arts" is not valued. It is not her fault that we view "keeping a home"--cooking, cleaning, mending, wiping noses, nursing babies, making everyone comfortable--as a job without merit. I'll bet Jemima mothered someone else's children (children who would grow up to see her as "less than") and made someone else's house a home, and at the end of the day, came home and gave whatever love and comfort she had left to her own family. She seems like the kind of woman who is always giving, who always has something for you when you stop by.
It's not Jemima's fault that we don't see how mentally and physically strong she was. Women like her could work beside their men "from can see to can't" and carry the psychic scars of being chattel. As Sojourner Truth said:
Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! ...I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well!...I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me!
It's not Jemima's fault that we can't see the strength and grief behind her wide smile.
It's not Jemima's fault that society sees her large, brown body as unfeminine and undesirable. I'll bet Jemima had a man who loved her--who, after a day of hard work on the hard earth under the threat of a hard lash, loved to rest himself against her softness. They might have lain in bed at night and dreamt about a time when they would no longer have to work for someone else's gain, but for themselves and their family.
It's not Jemima's fault that we see only one dimension of her character--that she has been "chopped up" as Walker says. I'll bet there was more to her than her role as happily, servile mammy. Maybe she was funny. Maybe she was shy. Maybe she loved music and had a strong and beautiful singing voice. Maybe she was a coquette. Maybe she was biding her time, plotting to run to freedom. Maybe like that other storied female character, Mona Lisa, Jemima smiles because she has a secret. Maybe in all those grinning, red-lipped pictures, she's thinking how no matter the box society has put her in, that she is more than a matron. She is nurturing, strong, sensitive, playful, beautiful, sexy, hopeful--all those things.
I know the folks who put Jemima on pancake boxes, who mold her into salt shakers and blacken their faces to try to be her, don't think of her this way. But I do. Jemima is every woman. And I'm not mad at her any more.
Check out this interesting six-part documentary "Ethnic Notions" on You tube. In this segment, look for discussion of the mammy stereotype at around four minutes: