Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?

This is Ringgold’s first story quilt and the first quilt project she made by herself, without the help of her mother, who died the previous year. Squares along the borders depict African American women of varying ages from all walks of life, and the squares in the center depict a variety of different people, each connected to a block of text that tell some part of Aunt Jemima’s story. The center square resembles a book title page and declares the piece a “quilt book.”

As Michele Wallace, the artist’s daughter and art critic, has noted, the work answers the question “what are we (as black women) supposed to do with our lives and how are we supposed to do it?” Ringgold contradicts a common stereotype of an African American woman by here recasting Aunt Jemima as a successful businesswoman and notes that the work is also “a feminist statement about the stereotype of black women as fat. Aunt Jemima conveys the same negative connotation as Uncle Tom, simply because of her looks.” By focusing on a heroic matriarch, Ringgold also connects to Aunt Jemima’s story her own success in overcoming the stereotypes she faced as an African American woman and artist.

Acrylic on canvas, dyed, painted and pieced fabric – Private collection

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima: an assemblage that repositions a derogatory figurine, a product of America’s deep-seated history of racism, as an armed warrior. It’s become both Saar’s most iconic piece and a symbol of black liberation and radical feminist art—one which legendary Civil Rights activist Angela Davis would later credit with launching the black women’s movement.

Emerging in the late 1800s, America’s “mammy” figures were grotesquely stereotyped and commercialized tchotchkes or images of black women used to sell kitchen products and objects that “served” their owners. These included everything from broom containers and pencil holders to cookie jars. Perversely, they often took the form of receptacles in which to place another object.
Saar’s discovery of the particular Aunt Jemima figurine she used for her artwork—originally sold as a notepad and pencil holder targeted at housewives for jotting notes or grocery lists—coincided with the call from Rainbow Sign, which appealed for artwork inspired by black heroes to go in an upcoming exhibition. In the cartoonish Jemima figure, Saar saw a hero ready to be freed from the bigotry that had shackled her for decades.
The first adjustment that she made to the original object was to fill the woman’s hand (fashioned to hold a pencil) with a gun. In her other hand, she placed a grenade. “She was seeking her power, and at that time, the gun was power,” Saar said to Artsy.
Into Aunt Jemima’s skirt, which once held a notepad, she inserted a vintage postcard showing a black woman holding a mixed race child, in order to represent the sexual assault and subjugation of black female slaves by white men. She collaged a raised fist over the postcard, invoking the symbol for black power. Finally, she set the empowered object against a wallpaper of pancake labels featuring their poster figure, Aunt Jemima.

Renee Cox


One of the most controversial African-American artists working today, Renee Cox has used her own body, both nude and clothed, to celebrate black womanhood and criticize our racist and sexist society.

She was born on October 16, 1960, in Colgate, Jamaica and later moved with her family to Scarsdale, New York. Cox began studying photography at Syracuse University and received her master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. After completing her MFA, Cox participated in the year-long Whitney Independent Study program.

From the very beginning, her work showed a deep concern for social issues. In her first one-woman show at a New York gallery in 1998, Cox created superhero named Raje who led a crusade in trying to overturn stereotypes such as in the piece “The Liberation of Lady J and UB,” where Raje leads Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to liberation from their boxes.

Source: Artsy, Artnews


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