“I ain’t none of your damn auntie. I ain’t no kin to you. My name is Alice Caldwell Smith…You see how black I am. I am not your aunt. Don’t call me aunt,” said noted poet Lucille Clifton on what Aunt Jemima would have said to people who called her out of her name.
“Well, in line with my thinking about names, I was thinking about those names that we hold dear, and we take for granted. These are in their voices, and I do voices I think pretty well. Or well enough, at any rate. This is called Aunt Jemima. She is speaking,” said Clifton during an interview with Significant Poets (1).
Here below, is the poem Aunt Jemima by Lucille Clifton that she referenced during the interview.
White folks say I remind them
Of home I who have been homeless
All my life except for
their kitchen cabinets
I who have made
The best of everything pancakes
Batter for chicken
The shelf on which I sit
Between the flour and cornmeal
Is thick with dream
Oh how I long for
My own syrup rich as blood
My true nephews my nieces
My kitchen my family
Black artists react to Aunt Jemima
Through the years Black artists of many genres have reacted to Aunt Jemima by reimagining her with their artwork.
Betye Saar, a legendary Black artist, recycled Jemima’s imagery from a negative to a positive. Her piece called The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, still continues to inspire and ignite a revolutionary spirit. (2).
Joe Overstreet re-imagined Aunt Jemima with a piece called The New Jemima. He transformed the subservient figure into an empowered Black woman wielding a machine gun with pancakes and syrup flying around the air like bullets. (3))
Black Auntie, Mammy caricatures
Since the late 1900s the black aunt—the aunt mammy—has been used to market and sell products—products that profit from the fantasy of black servitude. As Lucille Clifton suggests, the Mammy, the Aunt Jemina, helps white people feel “at home.” At the center of the fantasy white home is mammy. The ‘mammy’ aunt is the Black woman who cooks, cleans, loves the white children, and is submissive to the white mother and father.
She is desexualized and dehumanized. She is a character who exists for the sole purpose of serving whites, for we don’t know who her family is, where her kitchen is, or where her home may be. Auntie’s only place is in the white woman’s kitchen, on a shelf next to the kitchen cabinets. (4)
The title “mammy” and “aunt” and “auntie” have long been methods of taking away black women’s self-definition. The ideal mammy was fully committed to serving the white family. Her own family name and first name were eliminated to sustain the fantasy that she only exists to serve the family she works for.
The mammy aunt caricature was well-loved by nostalgic white southerners. Her image persisted through southern history after slavery was “abolished.” She was a core element of nostalgic longings for slavery, the “Lost Cause.” This nostalgia for the mammy aunt was reflected in media, most iconically by Hattie McDaniel as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, and in my other popular movies and TV shows like Imitation of Life (1934), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Pinky (1949), and The Beulah Show (1950).
Black Mammy in print media
The ‘mammy aunt’ also has her place in print media. She was featured in books such as Mammy’s White Folks by Emma Speed Sampson (1919), Mammy’s Reminiscences: And Other Sketches by Martha Sawyer Gielow, Alabama (1898), and Albert Morris Bagby’s Mammy Rosie (1904), according to Sotirin, Patricia J., and Laura L. Ellingson. Where the Aunts Are: Family, Feminism, and Kinship in Popular Culture. Baylor University Press, 2013.
Still, film and print media weren’t sufficient in quenching white people’s desires for the mammy aunt. White southerners tried to recreate the system of mammy aunting, as demonstrated in the founding of the Black Mammy Memorial Institute, erected in Athens Georgia around 1910. This “institute” was designed to teach black women domestic servitude—teach them how to be “good mammy’s.”
Black Aunt Images on TV
As the face of politics and pop culture shifted in the 1960s, when it was no longer fashionable for mammy to appear on television, the Claire Huxtable image of progressive, respectable black womanhood began to influence aunt figures in black tv shows. Do you remember such shows as House of Payne, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Bernie Mac Show? The new black aunt can be read as a reaction to and resistance against the mammy aunt. But, while she undoubtedly differs from the mammy aunt and transgresses normative gender politics in many ways, she often inhabits the “respectable black lady” and the “strong black woman” stereotype. Stereotypes that also arose out of misogynoir and racism grounded in slavery and the suppression of black women’s sexualities.
Respectable Black Lady
As a 90s baby, Aunt Viv from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has been the pop-cultural aunt who has influenced me most. In the first three seasons of The Fresh Prince, the seasons before Janet Hubert was abruptly replaced with the lighter-skinned, Daphne Maxwell Reid, Aunt Viv played a central role on the show. Aunt Viv was indeed a Clair Huxtable-inspired, respectable Black Lady who most always chose family over career. In episode after episode, she proved that maternity is the true form of womanhood—the ultimate “happy ending” for women. Still, she also had transgressive plot developments.
On her 40th birthday, Aunt Viv auditioned for a dance company, following her much-suppressed dreams of being a dancer. Her audition went well and she got the role. But, as per usual, she chose family and a prestigious academic career over her aspirations to be a dancer. Despite the “maternal” happy ending, this plotline added complexity to Aunt Viv: her dancing aspirations not only transgressed the un-sexuality of “black ladies,” or more generally the black maternal figure, but also provided a meaningful exploration of a black woman’s world outside of the family, outside of the respectable career.
Many black TV aunts engaged in this subtle transgressiveness. While they fit into the “black lady” formula that sold to mass audiences, there were often aspects about their characters which more deeply explored the intersections of racism and sexism, of family and independence, respectability, and queerness. Also, unlike white TV aunts, black aunts in pop culture demonstrated the expansiveness of black kinship networks.
Othermothers in our communities
“Will Smith is taken in by his rich aunt and uncle. Helen and Junior King take in their nephew Jamie King. Bernie Mac and Wanda take in his drug-addicted sister’s three children. Ella and Curtis Payne take in their nephew C.J. and his two children after his drug-addicted wife burns down their home, provide a home for one of the children when the nephew’s family moves out, take in a foster son, and provide a home for various friends.” (4)
Black community support relies on alternative, expansive, and non-normative models of family care. These family arrangements, which many black TV shows explored, demonstrate the power of strong black community networks, aunting, and non-maternal nurturing. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins underlines the significance of “othermothers” in black communities, emphasizing the significant role of aunts in black family structures.
Collins’ book references many Black women’s aunting experiences, but especially Civil Rights activist, Ella Baker: “In many African-American communities, these women-centered networks of community-based child care have extended beyond the boundaries of biologically related individuals to include “fictive kin” (Stack 1974). Civil rights activist Ella Baker describes how informal adoption by othermothers functioned in the rural Southern community of her childhood.
“My aunt who had thirteen children of her own raised three more. She had become a midwife, and a child was born who was covered with sores. Nobody was particularly wanting the child, so she took the child and raised him . . . and another mother decided she didn’t want to be bothered with two children. So my aunt took one and raised him . . . they were part of the family. (Cantarow 1980, 59).”
Because of the legacies of slavery and structural racism in the United States, black children are the largest demographic in the foster care system, most vulnerable to the school to prison pipeline, most vulnerable to hunger and homelessness, most vulnerable to state violence. Because these are the conditions of blackness in the US, the significance of “othermothers” and family circles that are much wider than what is considered normative in a white world is supremely important. The normative, white family formation simply does not work for black communities and other communities that are targets of state violence:
“Black women’s experiences as blood mothers, othermothers, and community othermothers reveal that the mythical norm of a heterosexual, married couple, nuclear family with a nonworking spouse and a husband earning a ‘family wage’ is far from being natural, universal and preferred, but instead is deeply embedded in specific race and class formations,” Collins’ book stated.
Black people have understood this for a long time and have been fighting against the aunt mammy ideals, the Aunt Jemima caricature, and the disempowerment of black aunts.
Aunts are Radical Caregivers
The challenge and reclamation of the Aunt Jemima caricature are fitting given the significance of aunts and “othermothers” and fictive kin in black communities. Indeed, many black women self-define as “auntie” in extreme discordance to the mammy aunt legacy. Modern black aunties are radical black caregivers to their families and communities. Their names can not be taken. They can not be placed in the kitchen cabinet.
During the current mass political uprising which calls for the abolishment of prison and the police, black aunties, othermothers, and fictive kin provide the groundwork for supportive community systems that can care and protect without tools of the patriarchy, warfare, and torture.
‘Othermothering’ is further explained in Black Feminist Thought: “Sara Brooks, a Southern domestic worker, describes the importance that the community-based child care a neighbor offered her daughter had for her: “She kept Vivian and she didn’t charge me nothin either. You see, people used to look after each other, but now its not that way. I reckon it’s because we all were poor, and I guess they put theirself in the place of the person that they was helpin’.”
The system of care Sara Brooks describes and experienced in her lifetime makes me ever hopeful for the future. Black aunties are essential to a new world structure based in empathy and care, where black people have the resources to look after each other, where all black children have homes.
Bibliography and Credits
(1) from Interviews with Significant Poets. https://www.gracecavalieri.com/significantPoets/lucilleClifton2.html. 1 Accessed 3 Aug.)
(2) Gotthardt, Alexxa. “How Betye Saar Transformed Aunt Jemima into a Symbol of Black Power.” Artsy, 26 Oct. 2017. www.artsy.net, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-betye-saartransformed-aunt-jemima-symbol-black-power.
(3) “Joe Overstreet’s ‘New Jemima’ Became Icon of Civil Rights Movement.” Mississippi Today, 17 Feb. 2018. mississippitoday.org, https://mississippitoday.org/2018/02/17/joe-overstreets-newjemima-became-icon-civil-rights-movement/.
(4) Sotirin, Patricia J., and Laura L. Ellingson. Where the Aunts Are: Family, Feminism, and Kinship in Popular Culture. Baylor University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http:// ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/columbia/detail.action?docID=1120077.
“The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” The Berkeley Revolution, 4 Mar. 1972. revolution.berkeley.edu, http://revolution.berkeley.edu/liberation-aunt-jemima/.
Wilkins, Elizabeth. “You See How Black I Am… Don’t Call Me Aunt!”: ‘Mammies’, ‘aunts’ and Domestic Workers in Twentieth Century America. College of Charleston, 2014. ProQuest, http:// search.proquest.com/docview/1532218686/abstract/479D0681AF142D1PQ/1.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 7 Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/columbia/ detail.action?docID=178421. 7 of 7
“The Liberation of Aunt Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 5 Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/columbia/ detail.action?docID=178421.
Sotirin, Patricia J., and Laura L. Ellingson. Where the Aunts Are: Family, Feminism, and Kinship in Popular 6 Culture. Baylor University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ columbia/detail.action?docID=1120077.