Reclaiming Aunt Jemima: A Different World Season 5, Episode 11

In 1987, aired A Different World, a television show that would transform television and black identity for over twenty years. It was originally created as a spin off that followed beloved character from the Cosby Show, Denise, to a historically black college where she would begin her freshman year. After the first season of A Different World, Denise was no longer featured on the show. In order to replace Denise as the main character, the show began to focus on the supporting characters from season one, bringing their side stories to the forefront. During this process, A Different World began to get a lot of notice for it’s discussion about race, class, gender, and more within the African American community and the world. A Different World’s popularity took off and the show aired for six strong seasons and continued to repeat episodes for twenty years.

In the fifth season of A Different World, in episode 11, A Different World continues to shine a light on topics of race and culture as it introduces the topic of Mammy to primetime television in its attempt to reclaim her as a powerful woman in black history, whose struggle is beneficial to the bettering of Black life. Mammy transformed into Aunt Jemima historically as companies decide to make a further profit off of caricatures created during slavery, by placing Aunt Jemima on a pancake box. This transition affected the identity of the black female body, caused issues of colorism, and lowered the glass ceiling on what Americans thought black women were capible of. In this episode of A Different World, it uses its characters to display the negative effects Aunt Jemima has had on the African American community, how she can be reclaimed, and the benefits to reclaiming her.

The first way in which the show depicts the impacts of Aunt Jemima is by displaying how the imagery and namesake of Aunt Jemima has affected the confidence and identity of one of the strongest characters in the series. Kimberly Reese, usually seen on the show as a strong, dedicated, strong willed woman who will sacrifice everything for her dreams to become a doctor is broken down when Mammy is presented in an exhibit for her Dorm Dedication Ceremony. “I’m not learning anything about myself by looking at her”, Kim states. In retrospect, the entire cast, both male and female learns a lot about themselves and their actions because Mammy was brought into the conversation. As a child, the memory that has affected Kim so much that she becomes so sensitive about her skin complexion, seeing mammy figurines, and hearing yo mama jokes, is of winning a costume contest in which Kim dresses up as a Nubian Princess. As she goes up to accept her prize, her principle says, “ First prize goes to Kimberly Reese as Aunt Jemima”, The imagery of Aunt Jemima stuck with Kim her entire life as she tells her friend, “I guess that is how they see me”. Like generation of black women, the historical baggage that is attached to Aunt Jemima and the white supremacy that is responsible for this baggage is very real and causes women to hate their skin complexion, hate other women, and cause men to lash out on women.

The conflict between Kim and Whitley Gilbert can be compared to the age of opposition of the Jezebel and Mammy. A Different world displays and destroys this imagery by making the connection to characters that are so dynamic in the ways they identify themselves. The complexity in Kim’s identity as a pre-med student, working her way through school, and the complexity of Whitley’s identity exemplifies the complexity of Aunt Jemima and of all black women. Freddie, a main character in the show, sums up the reclaiming of Aunt Jemima by stating, “Just because they put her on a box, doesn’t mean that is who she is”. This episode of A Different World asked its viewers to identify themselves, separate from the stereotypes that have been attached to African Americans from enslavement. It also asks its viewers to question whether joking about the stereotypes of blackness helps or hurts the situation. There is a scene in the episode where Dwayne Wayne and Ron Johnson are playing the Dozens and are called out about it being degrading to the black woman. This episode and this series, is a black feminist intervention that refocuses black people attention to the injustices we have been experiences and ways in which the community can look at these injustices and move forward instead of breaking down.

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