On a recent day in Rio de Janeiro, I pulled out a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix at a friend’s house. I was excited to cook my favorite pancakes for my new friend.
“Oh my goodness a black woman?!,” my friend yelled.
I was taken aback by her excitement to see a black woman on a box of pancake mix. Because… you know… it is Aunt Jemima. Although Aunt Jemima has evolved into a well-coiffed elegant black woman, I would never CLAIM her. Why? Because I know her origins are minstrel shows, in which white actors used black face and exaggerated make-up to play black people. Aunt Jemima used to be a plump black woman who wore a headscarf, an outfit that most black women try to avoid in public. Decades ago she was represented by a real black woman—Nancy Green.
A website from the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University says this about Nancy Green:
The woman they found to serve as the live model was Nancy Green, who was born a slave in Kentucky in 1834. She impersonated Aunt Jemima until her death in 1923. Struggling with profits, R.T. Davis Company made the bold decision to risk their entire fortune and future on a promotional exhibition at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago. The Company constructed the world’s largest flour barrel, 24 feet high and 12 feet across. Standing near the basket, Nancy Green, dressed as Aunt Jemima, sang songs, cooked pancakes, and told stories about the Old South — stories which presented the South as a happy place for blacks and whites alike. She was a huge success.
But the excitement in my Afro-Brazilian friend’s voice clearly showed that she felt Aunt Jemima was a positive image.
“We don’t even have Aunt Jemima,” said my Afro-Brazilian friend.
Brazilians have Dona Benta.
Today Dona Benta is famous cooking brand, but the origins of Dona Benta herself can be found in the children’s stories of writer Monteiro Lobato—Brazil’s most famous children’s books author. His children’s stories were often set on the countryside farm of Dona Benta. Dona Benta is an older white single woman who lives with her niece and her slave/assistant, Tia Anastácia (who we can assume did all of the cooking). In Lobato’s books, Dona Benta leads her niece and nephew on various adventures that teach them about Brazil and life in general. Dona Benta has become such a figure in Brazilian culture that she inspired a cooking book and various television series.
My friend said she found it strange that a white woman would be the name of cooking brand because for decades, mostly black women did the cooking in middle and upper class households. After slavery ended, many black women found employment as domestic servants in white households. To this day, Brazil has the highest number of household domestic servants in the world.
So Brazilian people have Dona Benta. And Americans have Aunt Jemima (and Uncle Ben’s).
Which would you rather have?