Did you know that the original Aunt Jemima on the famous pancake box was really a white man in "blackface?"
Neither did Denise Campbell, and when she discovered this fact, and researched the sad history of one of the world's most famous advertising symbols, she was appalled.
"I went to the supermarket and said, 'That doesn't represent me!'"
Campbell, who is Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, is a woman of many talents. A scholar, she holds degrees in psychology and international communication, and is now pursuing a doctorate in cultural studies at Claremont Graduate University.
The Jemima Quilt
She is also an accomplished quilter and a devout Christian. She tries to live by the motto, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
This faith led her to stitch a beautiful rebuttal to the long-held stereotype of "Aunt Jemima."
Campbell's quilt, titled "Would the Real Jemima Please Stand Up and Claim Her Inheritance?" was chosen to be part of an exhibition of 53 that ran for months at the Gallery of the American Bible Society in New York City.
Campbell's quilt, the first in a planned Jemima series, is intended to dispel negative stereotypes about black women. The quilt was inspired by the Book of Job, chapter 42, verses 12-17. Although many people are familiar with the tribulations of this Biblical figure, few have followed his story to the end. It is there, where Job is restored to prosperity and health, that he speaks of his eldest daughter, Jemima, whose name is translated as "Beautiful as the Day" or "Dove of Peace," the latter symbol in the quilt.
"God intended Jemima to be remembered as a symbol of beauty and restoration," Campbell said. "Yet, most Bible scholars have not connected this important biblical truth with restoring to beauty the image of black womanhood associated with the name Jemima."
Campbell's creative spirit and skill with a needle helped her turn fabric into an exuberant testimonial of faith and joy. On a deep red background, bordered by black-and-white African fabrics with Adinkra symbols of the Ashanti people of Ghana, Jemima dances. Her clothing is a wonderful combination: an eye-catching African skirt and an undergarment of Spandex!
According to the quilter, Jemima (who was modeled on Campbell's sister, Elayne Walters, a dancer) represents strength, beauty and dignity. Spandex garments are not easily removed and Campbell is not kidding when she said that she deliberately included that material to dispel the stereotype that black women are easily available sexually.
Her quilt, which took about 500 hours to complete, appeared as one of the catalog cover images and was featured on the American Bible Society Web site.
Every element in the quilt has meaning. Campbell said this is reminiscent of the "codes" used by black slaves to communicate among themselves.
In an odd twist of fate, Aunt Jemima pancake mix is now owned by Quaker Oats. Campbell finds it ironic that the smiling face of the Quaker, whose people were dedicated abolitionists, should adorn a product whose logo grew directly from slavery. (See accompanying story.)
"Threads of Faith: Recent Works from the Women of Color Quilters Network," examined contemporary African American quilts produced by a community inspired by faith. The exhibit earned excellent reviews in the tough New York arts media.
At the time of this interview, it was being dismantled and plans are being finalized for the exhibit's tour of the country. Campbell has been asked to donate her quilt to a museum, but hasn't made up her mind at this point. It would be difficult to part with a quilt that contains such deep feelings.
Campbell has an extremely full schedule. She is a wife and mother of two sons, and also serves as a research assistant to Carolyn Mazloomi, the exhibit curator and author of the exhibit's accompanying book, which can be purchased online from the American Bible Society. How does she balance the parts of this demanding life?
"I have very deep spiritual roots. It helps me stay grounded. And I have an incredible spouse. Chris is such an anchor. We've been married 28 years. I can't imagine I would have been so productive without this solid support system," she said.
Her current work in cultural studies weaves together different ways of looking at how culture forms and "the elements that comprise one's culture, your identity, all of the things that make up one's person, your sense of community and belonging. It also shows the ways in which those differences either help us draw together or pull us apart.
"It's been a wonderful journey for me to work on the doctorate, given my interest in material culture which includes the quilts. But, I'm also very much interested in cultural studies because growing up, I didn't learn a lot about African-American history. It was either in the margin of the text or it wasn't in the text at all. I'm like a sponge now, to learn things that really have been robbed -- from all of us, not just African-American women.
"This is a time for me to learn what I hope to impart to others, through my writing and also through my quilting."
The Flag Day Quilt and the World Trade Center
She created another stunning quilt for her son Ian's 13th birthday. The family was visiting relatives in New York three weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. They took a picture of Ian standing next to the Statue of Liberty, looking through a telescope at the World Trade Center. "He said, 'That's where Uncle Earl is." They all met for lunch and then Earl returned to work at the Trade Center. He narrowly escaped with his life on Sept. 11.
When the family returned to California and belatedly had their photos developed, "We realized that we had photos of the skyline with Ian looking at the Trade Center where his uncle had barely escaped. It was an important event in the summer of Ian's 14th year."
Denise captured the essence of the photo in a center block for a beautiful quilt for her son. Surrounding the center are "Friendship" stars and blocks with American Flag fabrics, because Ian was born on Flag Day. You know that this quilt is already on its way to becoming an heirloom of historic importance.
American women have been quilting for generations, first for economy as they used pieces of fabrics from worn garments; today, to express themselves creatively. Denise Campbell has made this heritage her own, as have other women of color.
"Our quilts record personal histories, make political statements, celebrate family values and reflect the role of faith and Christian tradition in shared history. Faith connects African-American artists to our individual past and our collective legacy."
The story of "Aunt Jemima"
The tale of one of the most well-known advertising icons in history, "Aunt Jemima," is one based on racial stereotyping. Yet, the product logo has proven so valuable in marketing that the stereotype continues to prevail, despite its negative reflection on African-American women.
Denise Campbell, whose award-winning quilt, "Would the Real Jemima Please Stand Up and Claim Her Inheritance?" has been part of a nationwide exhibition, has researched this advertising history as part of her doctoral studies in cultural studies.
A major source is "Slave in a Box: the Strange Career of Aunt Jemima," by M.M. Manring.
She learned that there was no real "Aunt Jemima." The original depiction, in the mid-1800s, was based on a white man in "black face" for a minstrel show. As part of his act, he had been mimicking a black minstrel's song, "Old Aunt Jemima," about a slave whose mistress had promised her freedom upon her own death, then refused to die.
In the audience was the owner of a failing flour company. He glommed onto the idea of "Aunt Jemima" and made arrangements to have the white minstrel pose for the box. The idea became so successful because it fed into the then-popular concept of the big, smiling, happy (as a slave?) black "mammy."
According to Campbell, even this stereotype was not historically accurate. Most house slaves were young and strong enough to endure the heavy duties in the kitchen -- or to serve as wet-nurses.
"Aunt Jemima" proved so profitable that a black woman, Nancy Green, was hired to depict her at the World's Fair in 1893. She was responsible for 50,000 orders for pancake mix and even given a medal by the company.
"In an odd twist of fate, Aunt Jemima pancake mix is now owned by Quaker Oats. Campbell finds it ironic that the smiling face of the Quaker, whose people were dedicated abolitionists, should adorn a product whose logo grew directly from slavery.
Campbell said the book details a story which shows that the power of advertising and profit is responsible for perpetuating a stereotype which "continues to be a lie, even to this day."
Her quilt is the attempt of one black woman to show the truth about Jemima, a Biblical figure whose name means "Beautiful as the Day" or "Dove of Purity."
* Niki Reese Eschen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.