20 Years Ago Aunt Jemima Made Me Feel Shame in My Blackness—But I'm Never Hiding Again

woman with head scarf

Stocksy

What Happened Then

I was a weird kid. In fourth grade, I made a tiny dollhouse inside my desk at school. In third grade, I carried a metal Sucrets tin filled with peanut butter and honey in the bib of my Catholic school uniform. My first Halloween in high school, when everyone else went to class dressed as David Bowie or Madonna, I dressed as a Black Laura Ingalls Wilder, my favorite author at the time. I’d spent two weeks getting the outfit just right. I pulled my hair up with a bright pink ribbon, wrapped around my head not once, but four times around my head before ending in a ginormous bow above my brow. The Jessica McClintock ruffle top wasn’t exactly authentic, but I’d splurged on the matching prairie skirt that swished back and forth as I walked toward my locker before homeroom.

“Ohhh look, it’s Aunt Jemima!” someone said. And then laughter came. First one person, then two or three others. “I thought Lincoln freed the slaves!” another person shouted.

After all these years, I don’t remember who said it. Mainly because I refused to turn around to see. I do remember that I walked to the nearest bathroom and tugged my jean jacket from my backpack and scrambled to pull it on before the first bell rang. I pulled on one end of the bow as if I unwrapped a present and shoved the cotton fabric into a pocket.

For the rest of the day, I wore the jacket buttoned all the way up and kept my arms at my sides so the headscarf wouldn’t tumble out. I spent the remainder of my high school years, in fact, my college and early adulthood, trying to hide my Blackness in the same way a chameleon tries to mimic their habitat. I pretended I hated hip hop because my white friends found the music too angry; I used shampoos that wrecked my hair because my friend’s shampoos smelled like a freshly sliced apple. The shampoos for my hair smelled like coconut—still a fruit, but too "exotic." The risk of being seen going down the "ethnic" hair aisle was too great for a girl who was already one of the only Black kids in class. I wore a lot of headbands in high school to hide my frizzy hair.

Looking back on those days, I’m embarrassed that I pushed away my Blackness so easily—I had a major inferiority complex about being different and I saw my skin color as an obstacle.

What Happened Next

That was way back then. As time went on and I left high school, like most young adults, I grew into my weirdness. I like blueberries, but not blueberry muffins. I find turtles pretentious. I have a fear of candle stores (All that wax! What if there’s a fire?) In fact, I pretty much fit the stereotype of an introverted college student looking to reinvent herself. Looking back on those days, I’m embarrassed that I pushed away my Blackness so easily—I had a major inferiority complex about being different and I saw my skin color as an obstacle. My friendships with my white friends were fragile, like an egg yolk. At an after school kickback, a blonde friend, easily one of the most popular girls in my circle, referred to a group of Black students using the n-word. My friend group gasped, but no one said a word as I stood up and left. I was outspoken, I thought, but I wasn’t ever going to give anyone the opportunity to refer to me in that way. From then on, I rarely spoke to the Black kids at my school, and on the rare occasion that I did, I felt embarrassed to be in conversation with them. I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t what she said.

Appearing less Black was my younger self’s manifesto; I rejected all stereotypes of what Blackness looked, acted, and sounded like. I straightened my hair. I squirmed in my seat when white people talked about playing the race card; I made sure to murmur assurances about how racism mostly a thing of the past. My reward for pointing at Blackness from across the room and calling it bad was to have white and brown friends tell me how, when they saw me, they didn’t see color.

Music to my ears, to be sure. My mother encouraged me to combat internalized racism, supplying me with dashikis and books by Black authors. It did no good. I listened to the words of my other, similarly socialized relatives. Once, at a beach in Florida, my father made me wrap myself in a towel so I wouldn’t "look a darky." And so I sat, swaddled and sweltering, on a beach chair with my legs tucked under me and away from the sun. The heat was worth it. Blackness was something to be ashamed of, and I’d do my best to distance myself from it.

But my feelings didn’t start with me being told I looked like Aunt Jemima. They also stemmed from my own deeply ingrained internalized racism.

What is internalized racism? According to Donna K. Bivens, it’s when Black people develop ideas, beliefs, actions, and behaviors that support or collude with racism. It’s a more nuanced and systemic issue than low self-esteem or low self-worth; it’s taking the stance of the oppressive society as a form of self-preservation.

Years passed.

And then Trayvon Martin was killed. Then Atatiana Jefferson. Then Breonna Taylor. Then George Floyd. And too many heartbreaks to list here.

The world changed. I changed right along with it.

What Happens Now

The morning Quaker announced the Aunt Jemima name and image would be retired, I let out a breath I’d been holding for over 20 years. The fear of being called out for my closeness to a stereotype left more than a bad taste in my mouth, it covered every mirror with a thick paste of shame.

I hate Aunt Jemima, I muttered after I read the news about the pancake brand. Then, another, uncomfortable thundercloud of thought drifted across my brain: Do I hate the brand or the woman she represents in history? I loved that woman, right? The woman who got up, day after day, to make a living in a society that mocked her and kept her at arm’s length. Yes, I loved her. But I didn’t want to stand too close to her, in case people lumped us together. To call the realization an a-ha moment is too narrow. I call it a seismic humbling—because that’s what it was.  

The self-scorn of my own skin color didn’t begin with me—but with work, it can end with me.

My mind scuttled between sadness and embarrassment before settling on a jaw-squaring determination. The self-scorn of my own skin color didn’t begin with me—but with work, it can end with me. I needed closure. I needed to mark the occasion. I needed a head wrap.

During a visual search of head wraps on Google, I stumbled upon its history. Because of my mother’s efforts to educate me, I knew enslaved women were forced to wear headscarves to highlight their low social status within the community. After Reconstruction and emancipation, the visual of the Black mammy emerged. No longer enslaved, but still subservient. I found Black-owned companies with fruit punch colored head wraps to order. By the end of my scroll, I found images of stylish women who embrace the hell out of their blackness.

When my new head wrap arrives, I’ll dot my face with a moisturizer made for my exact skin type and I’ll make sure to use a dab of coconut oil in my twists (it’s summertime and the air here in Atlanta is humid). The fabric will frame my face as I fuss with it in the mirror. When finished, I’ll slick my lips with my favorite matte lippie. And then I’ll take a selfie, of course, because that’s what one does when they want to show the world who they are.

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