There’s just so much wrong with this meme, it’s difficult to know where to start. But it serves as an example of the great need for media literacy and critical thinking in the digital age.
Because of the nature of the media itself, these types of memes are designed as a quick read. They distill a complicated topic into just a few sentences; a nice, digestible chunk. They’re the chicken nuggets of information. Like chicken nuggets, they may taste good, but they’re starving you for nutrition. They’re always incomplete. They are always written in an entirely biased point of view and they’re nearly always presented as the only correct take on whatever the topic is, dissenters be damned. Just pop it into your mouth and go.
Memes are bad. Also, breaking news: water is wet, smoking is deadly and two of every three people you know has herpes (seriously, look it up. It’s gross.). I know it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this out, but these terrible memes still exist, and they keep existing and more are produced and we’re all getting dumber because of them. People share them knowing full well someone they know is going to quote it verbatim to someone else, taking online disinformation into a very real world and spreading it like JIF on Wonder Bread. It kinda terrifies me.
Look, we’ve taken the entirety of the collected history of the human experience and made it readily available to every schmo in the world (We can talk about the inequitable distribution of internet resources on a planetary scale some other time. Just walk with me here.). I’m going to come out and say it: Not everyone is equipped to handle that.
When I went to journalism school a hundred years ago, a media literacy course was requisite. Among other things, it taught us to be critical of the images, text, audio and video we were presented, and that often that media was designed to evoke some very particular response, to motivate you toward a particular action. It taught us the ways and means employed and, importantly, how to spot them when you saw these techniques out in the wild.
Not everyone has that knowledge, though I think everyone should. It should be required now in elementary schools and continued through college, with varying degrees of difficulty, because the media saturation today is so complete that no one can swim above it, only through it. We ought to be at least equipping our young to successfully navigate it.
My point is that not everyone is aware that they’re being manipulated, nearly constantly, online and off. Or even that it occurs. Memes are just a small part of that, sure, but they are, as we’ve seen, quite powerful. And on a populace unprepared or unconditioned to think critically about the media it ingests, the results are destructive.
I chose this particular meme for two reasons. First, because its time as hot-button issue has long since flamed out, yet I just recently saw it resurface. That’s part of the problem with these things: they don’t always go away. Secondly, this meme was shared by someone I know and love, and that makes me sad.
The Aunt Jemima brand took its name from the minstrel song “Old Aunt Jemima.” Chris Rutt, who created the pancake flour in 1889, heard it at a blackface performance and slapped it on his product. Aunt Jemima was seen as a “mammy” character, a racial stereotype of a slave happy to please her white masters.
After 137 years of profiting off Green’s image, the Aunt Jemima brand name and image was discontinued in 2020. Quaker Oats in its announcement acknowledged the long history of racism “We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype,” the company said.
Outrage ensued among some right-wing types. It apparently still continues, because I plucked this meme from my Facebook timeline at the end of April, 2022.
This meme is written in, and to, a distinctly right wing perspective, and it confirms that bias. There are plenty of others I’ve seen that are just as inaccurate but are written by and for a more left-leaning point of view. They exist aplenty too. With all my media training, I’ve shared some memes that have turned out to be utter bullshit as well. And I know better. Because they trade on our feelings, our core beliefs, that which we seldom, if ever, critically examine, they are insidious little worms that bore into our brains and shoot out of our fingers before we have a chance to examine them.
But that’s what we’re going to do.
Who are you?
Like a good many memes, this one is written by … by… whom? No one knows. You can trace it back only as far as the last person who shared it, but that’s not the author. Frequently, even the account from which these originate – if you can find it – are just shells opened for the exclusive purpose of posting that meme. Despite that all is presented as fact, no one can readily tell who the author is or where they sourced this material, because it’s not noted on the meme. It’s just some random, omnipotent voice, pulling information from a font of wisdom unknown and unreachable by regular human people to be unquestioningly absorbed and regurgitated.
This meme is supposedly about Nancy Green, the real human being who played the character of “Aunt Jemima,” until her death in 1923. But if you read the post, there’s almost no information about Nancy Green, the actual human person. It’s almost entirely about the character she played.
A “Wealthy Superstar”
Despite the meme’s assertion that Green was “extremely well paid,” there is no evidence that Green shared in any of the profits from the sale of the pancake mix. Nothing at all supports the idea promoted in the meme that she became a “wealthy superstar.”
Green, in fact, continued to work for the same white Chicago family she always had while she also played Aunt Jemima. Few outside of her closest friends and fellow parishioners at the church she helped found even knew of her secondary persona.
This part, in particular, is curious. It seems entirely made up to suit the narrative: “Her financial freedom and stature as a national spokesperson enabled her to become a leading advocate against poverty and in favor of equal rights for all Americans.” There is no evidence for any of this.
What we know about Nancy Green
Nancy Green, a 59-year-old servant for a Chicago judge, answered a casting call for the Aunt Jemima character. She won.
Nancy Green was hit by a car while walking along 46th Street in Chicago when she was killed in 1923. She was 89 years old.
Nancy Green was a founding member of Olivet Baptist Church, the oldest active Black Baptist church in Chicago.
Nancy Green lived with her grand nephew at the end of her life.
Nancy Green was buried in an unmarked, pauper’s grave in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. Through the dogged efforts of supporters, a proper headstone was finally placed at her grave in 2020.
Quaker Oats, which bought the Aunt Jemima brand a few years after Green’s death, declined to contribute to the headstone.
That’s one meme, chuck full of lies, misrepresentations and deliberate omissions. I’m going out on a limb and saying this is fairly typical of memes with both a leftist and right wing slant. They’re all garbage. I think many know this, but I believe many more do not, necessarily. Or at least don’t understand the harm that disinformation like this can do.
These memes erode truth. More frighteningly, they erode our belief in objective truth. The currency of these types of memes is based on an emotional appeal. They favor feelings over fact, belief over truth. And they’re effective. Two years later, an Aunt Jemima meme full of disinformation, rather than being laughed out of the lexicon as the absurdity it is, it’s still circulating. So if facts stand only so long as our feelings allow, and our feelings are our facts, then objective truth has truly ceased to exist.
That should maybe trouble you a bit, methinks.