To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
contact us | site guide | search
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachers
The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Overcome

Overstreet, The New Jemima, 1964
The New Jemima
Attacking Stereotypes
- Joe Overstreet, The New Jemima, acrylic on fabric over plywood, 1964 (PDF)
- Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, mixed media assemblage, 1972

Since the early years of the twentieth century, a long line of critics and activists—among them W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Larry Neal—have called for blacks to combat stereotyping by taking control of the images that define blackness and black people. Influenced by the assertive, confident black consciousness of the 1960s, some African American artists answered the call with a direct frontal assault. Joe Overstreet (1934-) and Betye Saar (1929-) went head to head with the formidable Aunt Jemima and with wit and irony redefined her meaning. The mammy has long been a staple of racial iconography in this country, created, owned, and used by whites. With The New Jemima and The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, black artists claimed the stereotype as their own, mastered it, and deployed it as a weapon.

Working in the Pop Art style, Overstreet portrays his Aunt Jemima on a surface that could be the front of a box. More than seven feet tall, she stands with a rag on her head, a smile on her face, and the world literally at her feet. Pancakes dance in the air around her, tossed not by a spatula but by the machine gun fire she trains upon them. In the air, too, in the upper-right foreground, coming at the viewer, is what might be a syrup bottle but looks suspiciously like a hand grenade.

Saar's piece offers three images of the advertising icon. A wall of boxes featuring Aunt Jemima's classic smiling face makes up the background of the entire work. The assemblage's middle ground is dominated by an Aunt Jemima statue, standing in cotton, with a broom in one hand, a pistol tucked under one arm, and a rifle leaning on the other. The statue, in turn, is fronted by what looks like a postcard of a mammy holding a crying white baby. The postcard is partially obscured by a black fist rising from a cloth in the colors of African solidarity. (2 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Why would Overstreet and Saar choose Aunt Jemima as a subject?
  2. How do they subvert the Aunt Jemima stereotype?
  3. Why did Overstreet make his Aunt Jemima over seven feet tall?
  4. How does Overstreet emphasize Jemima's maternal qualities? How does Saar? How do these qualities heighten the irony of the works?
  5. How does Overstreet's painting reflect the globalization of the civil rights struggle?
  6. How are these works similar? How are they different?
  7. Which is more effective in negating the stereotype? Why?
  8. Compare them to Bearden's Sermons: The Walls of Jericho.
  9. Compare the ways Overstreet and Saar redefined the Aunt Jemima stereotype in the 1960s and 1970s with the way Henry Ossawa Tanner redefined the banjo player stereotype in 1893 (see The Making of African American Identity: Vol. II). In each case, what positive attributes does the redefined image pose against the negative attributes of the stereotype?
  10. How do the Aunt Jemima pieces echo Julius Lester's essay, "The Angry Children of Malcolm X" (see #5: Soul)?
  11. How do they reflect the new black consciousness of the 1960s?
  12. In what ways do they comment on advertising?

Framing Questions
  •  By the end of the 1960s, what had African Americans overcome?
  •  How had the civil rights movement affected the lives of African Americans?
  •  What remained to be overcome?

Overstreet: 1
Saar: 1
2 pages
Supplemental Sites
Joe Overstreet online exhibition, from William Jennings Gallery, New York City

Bettye Saar online, from Artcyclopedia

Bettye Saar, overview, from Netropolitan (California/International Arts Foundation)

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Joe Overstreet, The New Jemima, acrylic on fabric over plywood, 1964. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas. Reproduced by permission of Joe Overstreet and the Menil Collection.

1. New Hope?   2. "People Get Ready"   3. From Negro to Black
4. Attacking Stereotypes   5. Soul   6. Dubious Victory
  7. Making It

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: August 2007