Monday, January 9, 2012

The Mythical Stereotype of the "Mammy"

In an article entitled, "The Mythification of the Mammy Figure," One of the earliest fictionalized versions of the mammy figure was Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Patricia Turner explains in Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies that the difference between this character and subsequent caricatures is the presence of a world away from the white family: "Stowe's decision to portray Aunt Chloe in a cabin feeding her three children while Uncle Tom and George Shelby looked on did give Aunt Chloe something future mammies often lacked--an implied sex life."(1)

Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe at home.

As the mammy moved into the twentieth century and became larger than life (in more ways than one), the personal time was sacrificed to the demands of the white majority that mythologized the figure. Even memoirs, which consistently mentioned mammies from the 1890s to the 1920s (2), downplayed the black woman's relationship to her own family. Cheryl Thurber notes in her essay, "The Development of the Mammy Image and Mythology":

[T]here were several passing comments that mammy had done a better job of raising her white children than she had done with her own, who frequently disappointed her. Consistent with this viewpoint is the suggestion that, after the abolition of slavery, she chose to remain with her master's family. Loyalty and affection were tied together.(p. 100)

Since mammy's loyalty to her white family caused her to neglect her own flesh and blood, when the time came and she had the opportunity to choose who she would stay with, the mammy opted to be a key part of the better family. These myths were perpetuated in the early twentieth century with Thurber noting that descriptions of the mammy in memoirs peaked between 1906 and 1912 (p. 96). Well after the mammy was supposed to have been a key figure in the southern American family, the culture invested a good deal of time and effort into developing her image:

“I want my Mammy” - Eddie Cantor - Sheet Music 1921

References to mammy in the Confederate Veteran magazine, American popular songs, memoirs, and fiction confirm that more was written about mammy at the turn of the century than during the antebellum period, the Civil War, or Reconstruction, the New South movement, and the later phases of the Confederate Lost Cause movement. (p. 95)

In Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies, Patricia Turner compares the proliferation of this stereotype to a similar event occurring in American advertising:

Like Aunt Jemima and her turn-of-the-century literary counterparts, these mammies were happily ensconced in the households of white employers. Implicit in each rendition was the notion that these thick-waisted black women were happy with their lot, honored to spend their days and nights caring for white benefactors. (p. 51)

The people promoting this nostalgia, however, were selling something much more than pancake mix. Catherine Clinton, author of The Plantation Mistress, explains the origins of the caricature:
The Mammy was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between black women and white men within slave society in response to the antislavery attack from the North during the ante-bellum era, and to embellish it with nostalgia in the post-bellum period. In the primary records from before the Civil War, hard evidence for her existence simply does not appear.(3)

As social and racial demographics changed in the North during the twentieth century, southerners held fast to the myth of the mammy as a way to define themselves and their relation to their northern contemporaries. Cheryl Thurber explains:

With the growth of black migration northward, the North was having its own difficulties with race relations and was ready to believe that the South had solved its racial problems. Certainly the ideal of a loving and faithful mammy contributed to the illusion of peace. With the expression of pious devotion and support for mammy, proper southerners could convince themselves and others of their own goodness. In a sense they were attempting to redeem themselves for the wrongs that had been done because, "I loved my old mammy."(4)
To borrow Snead's terms, it seems southerners were interested in emphasizing the importance of the mammy in their lives because of the omission of other kinds of positive inter-racial relationships. The harsh reality, however, was often much different. Thurber turned to the former slave interviews documented in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration in order to understand the extent of some of the exaggerations:

Very few former slaves mentioned any older relatives who had the role of mammy in antebellum times. In fact, they more commonly mentioned former slaves as having been raised by the white mistress as opposed to the adult black women who took care of the white children.
The few references to mammy by former slaves usually include a story about the special protection the role provided, or the continued concern shown by the white folks toward their former mammy....
There are numerous instances where the devotion of the white children to their black mammy was mentioned, including their care for her as she grew older and after slavery times. But the continued support was inconsistent at best.....
It is likely, however, that mammies did exist in the antebellum period, but in much smaller numbers than the mythology would indicate.(5)

Not only were the number of mammies smaller than imagined, mammies themselves were probably smaller too. Patricia Turner explains that the conditions of slavery rarely allowed for such large old women to be in the position of taking care of their master's children:

Like the field hands, those black bondswomen who worked indoors were unlikely to be overweight because their food stuffs were severely rationed. They were more likely to be light as dark because household jobs were frequently assigned to mixed-race women. They were unlikely to be old because nineteenth-century black women just did not live very long; fewer than 10 percent of black women lived beyond their fiftieth birthday.(6)

Regardless of the facts, however, the belief that white owners loved their mammies became ingrained in the American culture. Some people went as far as erecting a statue as a testament to this fictionalized in a place worthy of a president--the Mall in Washington, D.C. Cheryl Thurber notes that "From about 1910 on, suggestions for memorials to the mammy made their appearance culminating in 1923 with a United Daughters of the Confederacy proposal to erect a monument to her memory in the nation's capital. After extensive and bitter controversy, the bill was finally killed in the House of Representatives." (p. 99)
While Patricia Turner attributes the actual petition of Congress to the Daughters of the American Confederacy (DAC) (p. 53), the point remains clear: many Americans felt so strongly about this mythologized woman that they were willing to erect a statue in the nation's capital as a testament of their love.

One particularly interesting assessment of just how far this love could go comes in the form of Lillian Smith's 1948 description of southern society in Killers of the Dream. In "Race, Region, and Gender in a Reassessment of Lillian Smith," Roseanne Camacho writes:

As Smith's best-known and some would argue, best-written book, Killers of the Dream is the confessional literature, distilled from her magazine's editorials [from issues of Pseudopodia] and her memories of a segregated childhood in northern Florida. It converted Smith's childhood into an allegory of the reproduction of white supremacy in each generation, and aimed to move white southerners to a symbolic confession, a recognition of the evil of segregation.(7)

At one point, Smith addresses questions of race in terms of the mammy. Of particular interest regarding one possible interpretation of Mammy in Gone With the Wind comes in Smith's account of the relationship between a boy and his nurse:

In the old days, a white child who had loved his colored nurse, his "mammy" with that passionate devotion which only small children feel, who had grown used to dark velvety skin, warm deep breast, rich soothing voice and the ease of a mind is tender the touch of a spirit almost free of sex anxiety, found it natural to seek in adolescence and adulthood a return of this profoundly pleasing experience....
Sometimes he found what he sought and formed a tender and passionate and deeply satisfying relation which he was often faithful to, despite cultural barriers. But always it was a relationship without honor in his own mind and his personality. Yet with it was always the old longing, the old desire for something that he could not find in his white life.(8)
By playing on the aesthetic and virtuous qualities of the black female, Smith demonstrates the cruelty of a racially unjust world but she also adds to the mythification of the mammy. Just as notions of the "self" and the "other" transform into communal questions on the movie screen, Smith's representation of the white boy becomes an argument about all white men. Therefore, the virtue of the black woman translates into the enduring virtue of all black women.

The power of the mythic mammy is later established in the relationship with the children, their white mother, and the mammy who raises them:
Of all the painful and humiliating experiences which southern white women endured, the least easy to accept, I think, was that of a mother who had no choice but to take the husk of a love which her son in his earliest years had given to another woman. She valiantly made jokes about it, telling her friends that her child preferred Mammy to her and that was fine, wasn't it, for it gave her so much more time to attend to all she had to do! (p. 134)
Part of the mythification that occurs on screen--particularly in Gone With the Wind--is due in part to the role of the mammy as a surrogate mother. This, we shall see, occurs in Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. Before Hattie McDaniel's Mammy is addressed, however, we must first look at her predecessor in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.

A clip from the documentary _Ethnic Notions_ by Marlon Riggs. The film details the history of popular cultural representations of African Americans from the 19th century into the late 20th century. It focuses, in particular, on stereotypes and how they have changed over time and in response to circumstance. Here we see the example of the "Mammy" character, an ante-bellum construction that was used to demonstrate blacks' contentment with, indeed, need for, white mastery. Because _Ethnic Notions_ understands these stereotypes as social constructions that shift over time, it is an excellent example of how "racial formations" operate.

The stereotype of the "Mammy"


  1. Wow...society, smh

  2. Hello Ron. I am currently undergoing research on the mammy. Do you have a bibliography that you could include? I am particularly interested in the third cited source.

    1. The mammy stereotype or mammy archetype has to be one of the most enduring and endearing images of black women. She sells pancakes (Aunt Jeremiah), syrup (Miss Buttersworth), she sells books like the "Help" by Kathryn Stockett, movies like "Imitation of Life," or "Gone with the Wind," or television shows like "The Beulah Show," she wins Oscars (Hattie McDaniel or Octavia Spencer), she even had Congressional approval for a monument on the Washington Mall by the Daughters of the Confederacy (1923).

      The Mammy meme even goes across the boarders, Cuba has their version of mammy, as does Puerto Rico, Columbia, Peru. Mammy is ubiquitous. If you're looking for some bibliography, it just depends on your thesis and the questions that you are trying to answer.

      If you want to see mammy from her own eyes, then I would suggest reading the slave narratives that were from the WPA commission during the Great Depression, they are freely available at the Library of Congress. Or Harriet Tubman's biography, when she becomes a mammy; I have a few posts on mammy, or

      You'll find most black history in the lines between the text. For example, Google how the author Faulkner reacted when his mammy died, or any interview that Kathren Stockett of the "Help," discusses the beginning of her novel. There are pictures and images of mammies galore.

      What is your point-of view on the mammy? And from whose prospective are you going to tell the story is it mammy's point-of-view, the child, the parents who employ her? Mammy's children? The society -- white or black?

      If you unpack your thesis a little more, then I'll certainly help you in anyway possible.

      Thank you for the query.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

  3. Hello, Ron. I plan on writing a research paper in a history seminar about the slave trade of the mammy or the "market of [house] maids" in the Antebellum South. I'm interested in this topic because I always wondered how women slaves were selected to work as field slaves or as house slaves in the South, and I think I will focus on the slave trade of the house slaves or mammies. Are there any primary and secondary sources you could recommend I look into? I'm thinking about the slave narratives from the WPA. Any others I should look into?


  4. افضل شركة نقل اثاث بالمدينة المنورة تساعدك على نقل اثاثك بامان فلا داعى للقلق مع افضل شركة نقل اثاث بجدة

    عزيزى العميل انت من محبى التنقل باستمرار بالتالى انت بحاجة ماسة وضروية الى الاستعانة بالمختصين في نقل العفش خاصة ارخص شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض لان الاستعانة باى من عمالة الشوارع الغير مدربة والتي لا تمتلك خبرة كافية في نقل العفش او الحفاظ علية وليس هذا فقط فقد يؤدى الاستعانة بعمالة الشوارع الى حدوث حالة فقدان وتكسير للاثاث بالتالى التاثير الضار عليك عزيزى العميل

    لا تقلق مطلقاً الان بشأن نقل اي منقولات خاصة بك طالما استعنت بشركة الاول لـ نقل الأثاث في الرياض وخارج الرياض فنحن ليس الوحيدون ولكننا متميزون عن اى مؤسسة أخرى داخل وخارج الدمام وشهرتنا كافضل شركة نقل عفش بينبع
    نقل اثاث بجدة



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