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A mammy, also spelled mammie, is a U.S. historical stereotype, originating from the South, depicting black women who work in a white family and nurse the family's children. The fictionalized mammy character is often visualized as a larger-sized, dark-skinned woman with a motherly personality. The origin of the mammy figure stereotype is rooted in the history of slavery in the United States. Black slave women were tasked with domestic and childcare work in white American slaveholding households. The mammy stereotype was inspired by these enslaved domestic workers but is not an accurate representation of the American slave experience.
A caricature is an image that over exaggerates certain characteristics. Its representation is often one-dimensional and false. Though the mammy caricature was inspired by enslaved domestic workers, the stereotype is false. The mammy caricature was actually used to create a false narrative of black women being happy within slavery or within a role of servitude. Though there were women who worked within the domestic roles like maid or caregiver, there is no real evidence that there were women who existed within the mammy stereotype. The mammy stereotype limits the representation of Black women to a domestic role. This stereotype would have a role in economic disparity and the limiting of job opportunities for Black women.
One of the earliest fictionalized versions of the mammy figure is Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was first published in 1852. As the mammy figure progressed into the 20th century, the persona changed over time into perhaps caricature. Memoirs that describe the roles of mammies from the 1890s to the 1920s downplayed the mammy's relationship with her family. In reality, many enslaved women working domestically were forced to forgo relations with their families in favor of working for their master’s family.
Some scholars see the mammy figure as rooted in the history of slavery in the United States. Slave African American women were tasked with the duties of domestic workers in white American households. Their duties included preparing meals, cleaning homes, and nursing and rearing their owners' children. Out of these circumstances arose the image of the mammy.
While originating in the slavery period, the mammy figure rose to prominence during the Reconstruction Era. Some scholars feel that in the Southern United States, the mammy played a role in historical revisionism efforts to reinterpret and legitimize their legacy of chattel slavery and racial oppression. The mammy image has endured into the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy proposed the erection of a mammy statue on the National Mall. The proposed statue would have been dedicated to "The Black Mammy of the South".
The historicity of the mammy figure is questionable. Historical accounts point to the identity of most female domestic servants as teenagers and young adults, not "grandmotherly types" such as the mammy. Melissa Harris-Perry has argued that the mammy was a creation of the imagination of the white supremacy, which reimagined the powerless, coerced slave girls as soothing, comfortable, and consenting women. This contradicts other historically accurate accounts of enslaved women fearing for their lives at the hands of abusive masters. In 1981, Andy Warhol included the mammy in his Myths series, alongside other mythological and folklore characters such as Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse, and Superman.
In Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (2008), Kimberly Wallace-Sanders argued that the mammy's stereotypical attributes point to the source of her inspiration: "a long lasting and troubled marriage of racial and gender essentialism, mythology, and southern nostalgia."
The romanticized mammy image survives in the popular imagination of the modern United States. Psychologist Chanequa Walker-Barnes argues that political correctness has led to the mammy figure being less prevalent in the 21st-century culture, but the mammy archetype still influences the portrayal of African-American women in fiction, as good caretakers, nurturing, selfless, strong, and supportive, the supporting characters to white protagonists. She cites as examples Miranda Bailey, Mercedes Jones, and Ivy Wentz.
The mammy is usually portrayed as an older woman, overweight, and dark skinned. She is an idealized figure of a caregiver: amiable, loyal, maternal, non-threatening, obedient, and submissive. The mammy figure demonstrates deference to white authority. On occasion, the mammy is also depicted as a sassy woman. She is devoted to her owners/employers and her primary goal in life is to care for their needs. In some portrayals, the mammy has a family of her own. But her caregiving duties always come first, leading to the mammy being portrayed as a neglectful parent or grandparent. And while the mammy is devoted to her white family, she often treats her own family poorly. Moreover, she has no black friends.
Melissa Harris-Perry describes the relationship between the mammy and other African Americans in Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011) by summarizing that "Mammy was not a protector or defender of black children or communities. She represented a maternal ideal, but not in caring for her own children. Her love, doting, advice, correction, and supervision were reserved exclusively for white women and children."
This stereotype contrasts with the Jezebel stereotype, which depicts younger African-American women as conniving and promiscuous. The mammy is occasionally depicted as a religious woman. More often than not, the mammy is an asexual figure, "devoid of any personal desires that might tempt her to sin". This helps the mammy serve as both a confidant and a moral guide to her young charges, capable of keeping them in line.
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders includes other characteristics of the mammy in Mammy. A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (2008): A large dark body, a round smiling face, a deeply sonorous and effortlessly soothing voice, a raucous laugh. Her personal attributes include infinite patience, self-deprecating wit, an implicit understanding and acceptance of her own inferiority, and her devotion to whites. The mammy was also large-breasted, desexualized, and potentially hostile towards black men. Many of these characteristics were denied to African-American female slaves but were generally attributed to the mammy.
Another popular way in which the mammy caricature was previously portrayed was in minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were entertainment events in which white people dressed in black face and performed songs and dances. These depictions of black people were completely inaccurate towards the real behaviorism of African Americans yet they continued to be popular in the southern region of the country up to the early 1900’s. Minstrel shows were extremely damaging to the public persona of African Americans and largely contribute to the stereotypes and biases that exist against them even today.
The dress often reflects the status of her owner. The mammy is usually neat and clean and wears attire that is suitable for her domestic duties. Sometimes a mammy considers herself to be dressed up, but that is usually just an addition of a bonnet and a silk velvet mantle, which probably belonged to her owner.
Like most slaves at that time, the mythical mammy is often illiterate, though intelligent in her own sense. However, as intelligent as she may have been, most of her intelligence is a result of past experiences and conflicts. In particular, a mammy of an aristocratic family can be identified by her air of refinement.
When the mammy does not stay in the house of her owner or is not busy attending to the needs of the owner's children, she usually lives with her husband and children in a cabin that is distinguished from the cabins of the other enslaved people in either size or structure. Her cabin stands near the owner's house, but at a distance from the cabins of the other enslaved people.
Although her duties are far less tiring and strenuous than those of the other slaves, her hours are often long, leaving little time for her own leisure. It is not until the mammy becomes too old for these duties that she enjoys any home life of her own, since she is always preoccupied with the home life of her owner. There is a flexibility about the mammy's duties that distinguishes her from just being an ordinary nurse or a wet nurse, even though there is a possibility that she can perform either of these tasks. In some of the more wealthy households, the fictional mammy has assistants that would help her take care of the household's children. These women are often much younger than the mammy herself.
The mammy, unlike other slaves, is usually not up for sale, and the children of the mammy are kept in the same family for as long as possible, retaining the same relationships that the mammy has with the owner.
Roles in plantation householdsEdit
The fictional role of the mammy in plantation households grows out of the roles of enslaved African-Americans on the plantation. African-American slaves played vital roles in the plantation household. For the mammy, the majority of these duties generally are related to caring for the children of the owner's family, thus relieving the mistress of the house of all the drudgery work that is associated with child care. When the children have grown up and were able to take care of themselves properly, the mammy's main role is to help the mistress with household tasks. As her years of service with the family increase, the mammy's sphere of influence increases as well. She is next to the mistress in authority and has the ability to give orders to everybody in the house.
The mammy is often considered to be part of the slaveholding family as much as its blood members were considered. Although she is considered of a lower status, she is still included in the inner circle. She has often been referred to as a "unique type of foster motherhood". Aside from just tending to the needs of the children, the mammy is also responsible for teaching the proper etiquette to them, such as addressing the elders on the plantation as "aunt" or "uncle", as well as what was best to say on a particular occasion and what was not. The mammy is able to discipline her charges whenever they do something undesirable, and is able to retain their respect towards her, even after the children have grown to adults.
Mammy characters were a staple of minstrel show, giving rise to many sentimental show tunes dedicated to or mentioning mammies, including Al Jolson's My Mammy from The Jazz Singer and Judy Garland's performance of Swanee from A Star is Born (a song originally made popular by Jolson). Various mammy characters appeared in radio and TV shows. One prominent example was the radio and later short-lived television series Beulah, which featured a black maid named Beulah who helped solve a white family's problems. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Mammy Two Shoes, the housekeeper in 19 Tom and Jerry shorts, presented an animated example of the mammy, complete with dark skin and African American vernacular English. As a parody of this stereotype, the 1984 Frank Zappa album Thing-Fish featured characters called "mammy nuns".
The mammy caricature has been used as advertisements for corporations especially within the food industry. In 2020 the brand Aunt Jemima came under criticism for its branding after receiving public criticism about the company using a mammy carticure as its logo. The character of Aunt Jemima was not a real person and was portrayed by several people. This originates back to enslaved Black women who were forced to nurse and cared for white children. One of the founders of Aunt Jemima came up with the name and branding after hearing a minstrel song called "Old Aunt Jemima". Subsequently, other companies who profited from using images of black caricatures received criticism as well. Uncle Ben, Mrs. Butterworth, and Cream of Wheat are some of the companies that were spotlighted. In 2021, Aunt Jemima decided to rebrand itself as The Pearl Milling Company and changed its logo from the mammy caricature to an image of a traditional milling building.
- Aunt Jemima, portrayed by freed slave Nancy Green, 1893–1923. Following Nancy Green are a long line of Aunt Jemimas, including: Anna Robinson (1923–1951), Edith Wilson (1948–1966), Ethel Ernestine Harper (the 1950s)
Aunt Priscilla’s Recipe was a notable food and recipe column in the Baltimore Sun during the 1930s. Aunt Priscilla was a mammy caricature who was the stereotypical good southern cook who spoke in broken and exaggerated dialect. The alias of Aunt Priscilla was actually a white woman named Eleanor Purcell. Purcell also released several cookbooks under the alias. Purcell also took up the person of Aunt Ada in a column for The Evening Sun named “Ask Aunt Ada”. Black women were often the faces of these food or housekeeping columns because of the stereotypes like the mammy which associated them with servant and domestic roles.
Images such as Aunt Jemima and Aunt Priscilla were mammy caricatures that created a negative and limiting representation into servant roles for white families.
In the early 20th century, the mammy character was common in many films. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress with her performance as "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind in 1939. McDaniel's portrayal of the mammy caricature has received scrutiny. In 1940 shortly after the win, the NAACP did scrutinize McDaniels role and called out Hollywood for the lack of diverse Black roles and characters outside of servitude. McDaniels responded to backlash and said "Why should I complain about making $7,000 playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week actually being one."
In many of the contemporary media portrayals of the mammy caricature has been acted out by black men (Henson, 2013). A contemporary portrayal of the mammy caricature is seen in the film franchise Big Momma’s House directed by Raja Goswell and starring Martin Lawrence. In the movie Martin Lawrence plays an FBI agent, Malcolm Turner, who goes undercover as “Big Momma” also known as Hattie Mae Pierce who exhibits the stereotypical mannerisms and appearance of a mammy caricature. The character of Big Momma is a plus-size older black woman with a religious and nurturing background. The character is seen as a matriarch and a homemaker. Another mammy stereotype that the movie displays is the one of midwifery and domestic work. This originates from the history of older Black women serving as midwives on plantations.
The Help is a movie based on a fictional novel by Kathryn Stockett. Stockett’s The Help is about Black maids of white families in Jackson Mississippi during the 1960s. The movie has come under criticism for several reasons. One being that both the novel and film were written and executed by white people. Though the movie seemingly centers around the experience of Black domestic workers, this portrayal comes from their perspective. However, the writer and director both had Black nannies growing up. Thus, the portrayals of Black maids come from their limited perspectives. Consequently, this is a direct relation to the movie’s main protagonist Skeeter who has also been raised by a Black nanny. During the movie, Skeeter convinces several Black maids to share their stories and grievances which causes an uproar. The director argues that all races are going to see the movie. However, the Association of Black Historians released a statement saying, "The Help distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers."Some have argued that the movie is only another modern portrayal of the mammy stereotype. When asked about her role in the movie,Viola Davis expressed her concern with playing the role because of the stereotype . However, she argues that the mammy remains a caricature because she is never humanized in the writings or portrayals. Davis mother and grandmother also worked as maids so she was familiar with the experience and lives of black women within domestic work. Davis also challenged filmmakers to explore the lives of these women outside of the kitchen and to not limit their identity to just being maids. The lack of black stories and variety of black characters were also discussed in the interview.
- Mammy as played by Jennie Lee in D. W. Griffith's 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation.
- Aunt Dilsey, played by Hattie McDaniel, Judge Priest, 1934.
- Mammy, played by Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind, 1939.
- Louise Beavers played a mammy, cook, slave, or servant in almost all of her film roles. The more well known are: Imitation of Life (1934), Belle Starr (1941), Holiday Inn (1942), Jack London (1943) and I Dream of Jeanie (1952).
- Delilah, played by Virginia Capers, Big Jake, 1971
- Louise, played by Margo Moorer, Forrest Gump, 1994
- Ma Soupswill, Rare, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, 2003
- Aunt Tempe, played by Hattie McDaniel, in Song of the South, 1946
- Mammy Two Shoes, Tom and Jerry series, as above.
- "Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat": the 1941 hit boogie-woogie song's animated short features many depictions of mammy figures, starting with the title card, through to the admonishment, "Look here, Mammy. That ain't no way to wash clothes! What you all need is rhythm!" to "The End" displayed across a mammy's backside.
Dolls and ceramicsEdit
Mammy imagery has came in the form of several objects including dolls, ceramics, cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers, and other household items. These objects often being associated with kitchen or household items furthers the stereotype of Black women being in domestic and service roles. The mammy caricature was part of the post Civil War propaganda that was spread negative and false stereotypes about African Americans. These mammy ceramics and dolls had similar affects as the false representations created by black face and minstrel shows. These figurines were often exaggerated in features and tried to falsely portray African Americans as "docile, dumb and animated". Despite their racist meaning, these items have been passed down and seen as memorabilia. Although these mammy dolls and ceramics dehumanize Black people, some of them are still valued and sold for hundreds of dollars. In Natchez, Mississippi there is a roadside restaurant called Mammy's Cupboard that was founded in 1940 The building is shaped like a mammy caricature along with a head-wrap and long red skirt. Similar to Aunt Jemima's, Mammy's Cupboard use the imagery and the stereotype of Black women to promote a business. The restaurant's uses of a mammy caricature to portray Black servitude, something was especially reminiscent of the Old South. Mammy's Cupboard is still open and operating.
- Aunt Chloe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852
- Henrietta Beech, Petals on the Wind, 1980
- Beloved Belindy Johnny Gruelle
Like the image of Aunt Jemima, the image of the mammy was given a contemporary makeover as well as she appeared in television sitcoms. Some of the more contemporary features that the mammy received were that her head rag was removed and she became smaller, as well as lighter in complexion. In addition, her owner was not always white.
Some contemporary television sitcoms which featured mammies include Maude, where the character Florida, played by Esther Rolle, worked as a domestic for a white family. A spin-off titled Good Times was made, where Rolle's character became the center of the series; the show focused on her family, which lived generally happy lives in a low-income housing project. Other television series that featured mammies as characters include That's My Mama, Gimme a Break! and What's Happening!!.
When other contemporary mammies emerged, they usually retained their occupation as a domestic and exhibited these physical feature changes; however, their emotional qualities remained intact. These contemporary mammies continued to be quick-witted and remained highly opinionated. A new twist in the outlook of the contemporary mammy occurred in the sitcom The Jeffersons, where Florence, a maid played by Marla Gibbs, worked for an affluent African-American family.
A Different World was a 1980s sitcom that featured students at a fictional historically black college named Hillman. In an episode titled "Mammy Dearest," the mammy stereotype was discussed. The episode centered on an exhibition planned by the character Whitley Gilbert. In the exhibition, Gilbert included images of a “mammy”. The character of Charnele Brown is upset and wants it taken out of the exhibition. Gilbert and others argue that they must reclaim the image and take it away from racist history. Later in the episode Brown reveals a childhood story in which she dressed up a Nubian princess for a costume contest at school. When she won, she was announced as being Aunt Jemima. The incident was traumatic for her because she felt that was how people saw her.
- Beulah Brown, originally a character on the radio sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly played by white actor Marlin Hurt, later played on television by Ethel Waters, then Louise Beavers, The Beulah Show, 1950–1953
- Belle, played by Madge Sinclair, Roots, 1977
- Mamie, played by Diva Tyler, Eastbound and Down, 2009-2013
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- Walker-Barnes (2014), p. 85-88
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- Brown, Elisha (2019-03-27). "Mammy Jars Mock Black People. Why Are They Still Collected?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-04-02.
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- Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum, 1973/1994), 57.
- Camacho, Roseanne V., "Race, Region, and Gender in a Reassessment of Lillian Smith." Southern Women: Histories and Identities. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. p. 168.
- Clinton, Catherine, The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 201–202.
- Jewel, K. Sue, From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of US Social Policy, 1993.
- Parkhurst, Jessie W., "The Role of the Black Mammy in the Plantation Household", The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 23, No. 3, July 1938
- Smith, Lillian, Killers of the Dream. New York: W.W. Norton, 1949. p. 123-4.
- Thurber, Cheryl, "The Development of the Mammy Image and Mythology." Southern Women: Histories and Identities, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. p. 96.
- Turner, Patricia A., Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 44.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mammies.|
- Pilgrim, David. "The Mammy Caricature". Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University, Michigan.
- Mammy Dearest: African-American House Servants in Birth of the Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Song of the South American Studies at the University of Virginia
- Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly (June 15, 2009). "Southern Memory, Southern Monuments, and the Subversive Black Mammy". Southern Spaces. 2009. doi:10.18737/M7PK6W.