The Liberation of Aunt Jemima Revisited

Being a black woman in the world is a multi-dimensional experience. However, the variance and diversity is what is so enticing. There are many contributing factors that shape our experiences and we come to embrace the notion that we are not a monolith. However, it is the color of our skin that can determine how we are viewed in the world. That is the unifying experience.

When Betye Saar was assembling this piece, she mentioned that it was a quiet protest. When you look at this piece does it speak loudly or softly to you?

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Wood, Mixed-media assemblage, 11.75 x 8 x 2.75 in.

Betye Saar

African American assemblage artist Betye Saar often used stereotypical and derogatory images such as the black female image of the “Mammy” to invoke symbols of empowerment and positivity. Many people see the image of mammy and it stirs up the ugly and uncomfortable parts of American History, black female sexuality, and its pervasive depictions in art, media and culture.  The conversation surrounding black female sexuality often presents the black woman in an oversexualized state such as the Venus Hotentot, or in an asexual one, like the contented Mammy image. However, in the “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” one of Saar’s most famous works; mammy is juxtaposed against a smiling Aunt Jemima in a way that feels eerily co-conspiratorial between the two generational versions of the same woman. These images are uncomfortable to look at.

The Image of Mammy

Mammy is known to be the kind, loving and devoted mother figure who is happy in all of her roles of suffering. However, Saar’s work shows us a deeper laugh this is ultimately on an American society that has strived to strip black women of their agency and turn them into hidden figures. The mammy is a caretaker, a domestic, but the gun yells for your attention. Listen up! Look at us! The rising of the black fist up from the balls of cotton, can be seen as a call to action for mobilization and empowerment. The compelling visual of the discontented white baby captured in the womb of the ultimate mother, mammy, speaks volumes to the constructs that make up the foundation of our society. From the womb relationships are formed and mammy is the birth mother of the nation in the traditional American south.

In an interview with the Visionary Project regarding the Liberation of Aunt Jemima Saar states,” I wanted to do a work about a woman to make my protest feelings heard through this piece.”[1]

            I believe that Saars achieves her goal of protest for women of color, and of women that seek to be free of the hegemony that has suppressed their womanhood for centuries. Her work was very important in challenging images that define black culture and womanhood. Visiting Lecturer to the Savannah College of Art and Design, Catherine Morris, also felt that Saars’ work was an important part of feminist art history, and included her work in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition: “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85.”  In answering the important questions facing black female artists at the time Morris states “The question was, do you align yourselves with the black power movement and deal with sexism in that context? Do you align yourself with feminism and deal with racism in that context? There is always a battle to be fought.”[2]

True to the battle being fought, we can look at the image of both Mammy and Aunt Jemima to know that not much has changed.

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[2] Miranda, Carolina. “How the black radical female artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s made art that speaks to today’s politics,” Los Angeles Times, 2017. Accessed 28 April 2020 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-black-radical-women-caam-20171228-htmlstory.html

[1] VisionaryProject “Betye Saar: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Filmed March 2010. Youtube video 5:30. Posted March 2010. Accessed 28 April 2020. https://youtu.be/MvJvyFBcvD4

[2] Miranda, Carolina.How the black radical female artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s made art that speaks to today’s politics,” Los Angeles Times, 2017. Accessed 28 April 2020 https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-black-radical-women-caam-20171228-htmlstory.html