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Spring 2009 Issue
Stereotypes of History: Reconstructing Truth and the Black Mammy
History is written by the victor, while the voices of the oppressed are created to suit the needs of the more powerful. This "history" allows for stereotypes to be taken as fact, with these negative images internalized by marginal groups as they are continually transformed and repeated throughout history. The black Mammy has been incorporated into American history for centuries. This mythical image has been repeatedly modified to serve the interests of advertisers and the powerful groups of society. The Mammy's image and qualities originated in the southern United States as a way of upholding the image of a unified South in order to maintain business interests. However, one may not easily recognize the more recent use of the Mammy stereotype in such characters as "The Pine-Sol Lady" or Tyler Perry's "Madea." This essay addresses the origin of this stereotype and how its perpetuation has been carried out over time in advertising, art, and film to serve the economic interests of the ruling class and the powerful institutions of society.
Images Of The Mammy
Re-Configurations of The Mammy
The writer Milan Kundera once wrote, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting"(Kundera 1981, 3). The ramifications of this statement are not fully realized until we consider the different vantage points of history, memory, and the power relations that decide who and what gets ignored and altered in order to fit an acceptable version of American history. These alterations and modifications usually create stereotypes surrounding the issues of class, race, gender, and sexuality. Despite the efforts society makes to diminish these exaggerated images, stereotypes often rule our everyday interactions. One of the most commonly known stereotypes, still featured in contemporary advertisements and other media, is that of the black Mammy. Characterized with her own "personal" history, this mythic female character has been portrayed as the always loyal servant to her master's family. This image of contented servitude denies the restrictions of a slave and distorts the struggle of the social "other" as a black woman attempts to gain power in a society that demeans her both because of her race and gender. The black Mammy serves as a primary example of how stereotypes are taken as fact and are unfortunately incorporated into American history. Therefore, for centuries, this image has been repeatedly modified in order to fit the interests of those in power.
The history of women has often been selective and subjective, due to the popular opinion of centuries past, which believed the lives and accomplishments of women to be less important compared to that of men. According to Deborah Gray White, "Colonial white America's perceptions of racial difference were founded on the different way they constructed black and white women" (White 1999, 4). Yet the history of women cannot easily be compared across the dimensions of race, class, and sexuality, as oppression and exploitation have been experienced differently. Women's culture and oppression cannot be universalized as the story of all American women. For example, black feminist scholars of black women's history found that their invisibility was reinforced when they corroborated with the historical sources of both whites and black men. For the black woman, sex and race cannot be separated or viewed distinctly from one another (White 1999, 6). But women's history and African American history are still seen as separate narratives.
One's identity is not just race and not just gender. When we take into account the plight which black women must face in the eyes of history, they remain lower on the social hierarchy that is constantly at work in the writing of history. In "Memory and American History," David Thelen states, "In each construction of a memory, people reshape, omit, distort, combine, and reorganize details from the past in an active and subjective way" (Thelen 1989, 1120). Mixing past and present events helps to form the current understanding of history today. Construction of a memory arises out of a specific need or circumstance which deems a certain element of history "necessary" in the eyes of those in power, who may happen to benefit from the existence of such a memory. The construction of history and, specifically, the stereotypes perpetuated throughout history, arise out of a selfish need for the powerful groups of society to have an event or idea remembered or forgotten for their own gain, regardless of the validity of this piece of "truth." However, these so-called memories of American history are not always the same history remembered by the collective society of America. It is less important whether these stereotypes are true or false; more important is the realization that these stereotypes prevent the production of new meanings and ideas from entering the dominant narrative of history. American history is believed to be the story of all Americans. This helps to develop a shared identity by allowing people of similar backgrounds to form a singular interpretation of the past. Yet, what role does the social "other" play in the creation of memory?
The less powerful groups of society, based on class, race, gender, and sexuality, have been forced to cope with the history which has been written for them. The "selective remembering"(Lerner 1997, 205) of American history has reinforced the notion that both the histories of women and non-whites are not worth recording for future generations. The impact of women on the recording of history had to be "made from the margins, through 'influence,' not power, and through the mediation of men" (Lerner 1997, 207). History helps to shape and explain the world, both in the past and present, but marginal groups have been denied access to this creation. According to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, language is always rife with connotations as "there have never been 'neutral' words and forms – words and forms that can belong to 'no one'; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents" (Higginbotham 1992, 256). The history of women is viewed as a supplement to the history constructed by men in power. This is similar in relation to race. The history of African Americans was largely ignored, except for those aspects that involved white men. However, even this "history" was never entirely accurate as association between these two races began through oppression and slavery. According to Patricia Morton, the black American woman has emerged from history, alongside the stereotypical images associated with her identity, as a "natural and permanent slave woman" (Morton 1991, ix). This corresponds to the image of the enslaved black Mammy who remains tied to her white captors in advertisements and fictional images following the abolition of slavery. The appearance of loyalty on the part of the Mammy was deliberate, as advertisers and men wanting to maintain their southern business interests sought to uphold the image of a unified South. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders associates the use of the Mammy image with a "national amnesia about the history of slavery" (Wallace-Sanders 2008, 61) in order to justify this fabricated image. According to this myth of a picturesque Dixieland, the end of the Civil War did nothing to quell the faithful servant from the sense of duty to her former master's children.
The image of the Mammy is one of the most widely known and easily recognized stereotypes in American history. First mentioned in a travel narrative in 1810, the word "mammy" has been associated with a slave woman taking care of white children for centuries (Wallace-Sanders 2008, 4). With many depictions featuring the Mammy with her signature wide grin and large, white, shining teeth, the Mammy portrayed the image of constant contentment, thus serving as an important symbol to past and present slave owners to avoid the suggestion of maltreatment. Usually with an obese or robust figure, the Mammy was viewed as comedic, due to her betrayal of the common standards of beauty for women with a thin frame. Also, in relation to the concept of beauty, extremely large breasts and buttocks became common physical features of the Mammy. While these features are often viewed as the physical attributes which help to attract men, in the case of the Mammy, these features of exaggerated femininity merely helped to add to the comedic nature and encourage others to harshly critique and mock the Mammy. According to Wallace-Sander's analysis of the Mammy figure, the body of the Mammy acts as a "tendon between the races, connecting the muscle of African American slave labor with the skeletal power structure of white southern aristocracy" (Wallace-Sanders 2008, 3). Depicted often holding or caring for the children of her white master, the Mammy was placed in the precarious position of nurturing both her own black children and their future owners.
Images Of The Mammy
Wearing drab clothing, common to slave women during the nineteenth century, the Mammy was juxtaposed against the corseted Euro-American woman for whom she was working. And finally, with the addition of the headscarf, the image of the black Mammy would be complete. This headscarf, or more commonly called a head rag, is believed to be a custom from Africa, as it was sometimes necessary for women to cover their heads for religious ceremonies and certain occasions (Jewell 1993, 39). The inclusion of the head rag and its traces to Africa can be seen as an effort to further exclude these women from mainstream society as their ties to Africa are re-presented in a seemingly Americanized image.
With broad shoulders, large arms, and a wide stance, the black Mammy takes on the image of what bell hooks terms "masculinized sub-human creatures" (Hooks 1981, 71). The masculinization of the Mammy was used to maintain the patriarchal ideal of white women as passive and ladylike through this exaggerated alternative. These images show African American women as the "antithesis of the American conception of beauty, femininity, and womanhood" (Jewell 1993, 36). This is in spite of the fact that these images revolve around the kitchen and children, commonly seen as the domains of women. However, these physical spaces and the restriction of black women to these areas help to reinforce the system of hierarchy which is perpetuated throughout the rest of society. Jesse Parkhurst notices the stark differences between the Mammy and slave women, as the Mammy was given qualities which were often denied to other black female slaves:
She was considered self-respecting, independent, loyal, forward, gentle, captious, affectionate, true, strong, just, warm-hearted, compassionate-hearted, fearless, popular, brave, good, pious, quick-witted, capable, thrifty, proud, regal, courageous, superior, skillful, tender, queenly, dignified, neat, quick, tender, competent, possessed with a temper, trustworthy, faithful, patient, tyrannical, sensible, discreet, efficient, careful, harsh, devoted, truthful, neither apish nor servile. (Parkhurst 1938, 352- 353)
In this description, the Mammy is afforded certain qualities which deny her actual legal status as a piece of property to her owner, while presenting the illusion that the Mammy was well-respected by her master and his family.
The privileged class uses these "images and ideology" to keep African American women on the periphery of society, consequently limiting their access to societal resources and institutions (Jewell 1993, 4). This can also be seen in the display of diction and speech in some advertisements and fictional images of the Mammy. In order to further the idea that black women are less educated and, therefore, less worthy of the privileges of society, the common speech of the Mammy displays an uneducated, bossy, and domineering character. An example of speech used on a trade card for a Universal Clothes Wringer reveals the Mammy's response to her mistress as to why the washing was not yet done (Figure 1
): "Oh Mistis, De wringing am awful. Always tear de clothes. 'Spect dat I neber get through" (Morgan 1995, 103). Following the purchase of this clothes wringer, the work is finished quicker, but Mammy's grammar and diction remains relatively the same (Figure 2
). Advertisements clearly position the Mammy as the servant, and lower in status and prestige compared to the master's wife, despite her more apparent ability to conduct the business of taking care of a home and children.
Re-Configurations of The Mammy
From the Mammy figure, it is not hard to draw the connection between this mythic figure and that of Aunt Jemima. The figure of Aunt Jemima originated largely because of the long standing stereotype of the Mammy; however, Aunt Jemima's tasks in the home are usually reduced to being a cook. Aunt Jemima's smile and friendly demeanor arose out of the representation of stereotypes concerning black women by racist comedians, who profited from the image of an oppressed female body. Her personification has been traced back to St. Joseph, Missouri, where in 1889, Chris L. Rutt observed black-faced comedians performing. "[A] plantation cook in an apron and red bandana, seemed to fill the bill" for Rutt's hopes of advertising his self-rising pancake mix (Morgan 1995, 88). In the months that followed, Rutt hired Nancy Green, an African American maid to "play" Aunt Jemima at a company exhibit. Green, a former slave herself, entertained those visiting the exhibit with tales of life in the South, epitomizing the ideal of Southern hospitality and the redemption of the South which the Southern privileged class had been hoping for (Morgan 1995, 88).
Connecting the Mammy and Aunt Jemima to the image of the Southern home was also a comfort to those living in the North, fearing that the newly freed black slaves would move north and take away industry jobs. Presenting these black women as secure in their positions in the South led the privileged and working classes of the North to believe that blacks would not interfere with their future economic success. The manipulation of one's personal history for economic or societal gain was also quite common in the South as well: "Having been nurtured by an 'old black Mammy,' became a requisite fantasy for any southerner seeking to establish his or her pedigree" (Morgan 1995, 96). Being raised by a mammy allowed for others in society to believe that a person was wealthy and more prestigious than others associating in the same circles of the aristocracy.
Merely to act as a figurehead, the family and personal history of this female image was ignored, even to the point that the Mammy was denied a true name. While the term "Aunt" or "Mammy" was considered to be an honorary title given by the families who owned these slave women, personal alliances through marriage and kinship were left out in order to further bind the former slave to the south and the family of the master. The intended respect associated with the title of "Aunt" or "Mammy" does not allow for uniqueness or singularity among black enslaved women. Images of the Mammy were used to remove responsibility for the plight of the former slaves and the actions of the white Americans, which caused that struggle and enslavement to take place for centuries: "Seeing the former slave woman visually transformed into a contented servant absolved every one of past transgressions and future responsibility toward the freed people" (Morgan 1995, 94). This "sentimental recollection" allowed the negative history of the South to be romanticized and for the Mammy to become the symbol of forgiveness and redemption for the former Confederates and slave owners (Morgan 1995, 95).
This icon of redemption for the southern United States was denying the intense and long-simmering voices of enslavement, which continued on past the abolition of slavery. These images of submissiveness and aggressive femininity can easily be internalized, taking into consideration the popularity and continued appearance of these images in historical literature and film. This can be seen as historically significant considering that the occupations African American women entered until the 1960s usually revolved around the domestic sphere (Jewell 1993, 44). The hierarchy perpetuated by this image forced black women to remain in predominantly female occupations with little chance for career advancement or economic success. Those involved in the creation of such images remain insensitive and ignorant to the effect a stereotype can have on the "social construction of reality," as the negative and offensive images of black women guarantee that such women will remain "in their place" as they are subjected to discrimination and prejudice (Fuller 2001, 121).
As with many stereotypes, the memories of the Mammy fade and are again reshaped. Contemporized to include a lighter complexion and the removal of the head rag, the Mammy stereotype was once again featured in film and television. Similarly, the image of Aunt Jemima was updated to appear more politically correct as the symbol of slavery, the bandana, was removed. Aunt Jemima was also given a slimmer figure and depicted wearing pearl earrings, inching closer to the image of an ideal white housewife. Probably the most well-known use of the character of the Mammy in the last century has been her portrayal by Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. Going on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, McDaniel became the first African American to be nominated for and to win an Oscar. McDaniel was repeatedly criticized for perpetuating the Mammy image in many of her film roles. In defense of her choices as an actress, McDaniel stated, "Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one" (Bogle 1994, 82). It is still questionable whether an actress should take responsibility for the roles that she plays and the images being transmitted to viewers or whether it is really those who created the imagery who should take the full blame. Do they both bear responsibility?
Even today, almost two hundred years since the abolition of slavery, the Mammy image can still be seen in subtle ways. Used to advertise the cleaning power of Pine Sol, Diane Amos remains relatively unknown for her other acting credits. Immortalized by her robust figure and ready-to-attack attitude toward grime in the kitchen, Amos's image in these advertisements has become widely popularized. Unnamed, other than being known as the "Pine-Sol Lady," Amos's part in these commercials is a perfect example of the re-envisioning of the Mammy image to adapt to the changing needs of our society. Wearing plain, loose-fitting sweaters with cornrow braids, these advertisements are perpetuating the image of the Mammy as a desexualized woman. Still featured in advertisements and on the company's website, Diane Amos's status as the "Pine-Sol Lady" appears to be continuing despite racial equality having been codified into law. A study conducted by Lorraine Fuller found that these more modern representations of the Mammy make use of language such as "honey" or "baby," which was often used by slave women to refer to the white children under their care (Fuller 2001, 126). "That's the power of Pine Sol, baby" is the common script for commercials featuring Diane Amos. Yet, are these informal terms really necessary to sell a cleaning product or are they also attempting to sell the image of the modern black woman as "domestic"? This contemporary image maintains the prejudicial conclusion that black women should clean for a living and are not intelligent enough to hold higher status jobs (Fuller 2001, 124).
Reworked and re-imagined over the years, the Mammy image has been incorporated into popular Hollywood movies of the last decade, with black men often taking on the role of the black Mammy. Films featuring actors, such as Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, and Tyler Perry, have once again recycled the first existence of the Mammy/Aunt Jemima character in a comedic way. These characters are represented as full-figured women with strong and defensive attitudes, especially toward men who may bring harm to their loved ones. These latest images reflect the origin of the Aunt Jemima image as a man appearing in black face, as well as the idea that the Mammy is a divergence from the standards of female beauty and womanhood. The most recent of these examples come from Tyler Perry's numerous films, revolving around the character of Madea, who is seen as ruling with a heavy fist, depicted carrying a gun, and using a chainsaw. The image of the Mammy is still being marketed to mainstream society, attempting to voice the stories of assertive black women in stark opposition to the submissive slave woman who always obeyed her master. However, what message is it sending to viewers that this figure is a man in drag? If a black woman were cast in these roles, how would that affect the comedic nature of the characters? These figures are exaggerated and merely conform to the past images of the Mammy figure as a source of comedy that is subject to constant mockery and ridicule.
Outside of these images in the media, there are still a large number of African American or Afro-Caribbean women acting as caregivers and maids in the homes of middle-to-upper class Americans. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders expresses the apprehension she observed in her colleagues during the research process for her book concerning the Mammy: "Shadows fall across faces, eyes become moist, bodies shift nervously. The moment I say the words 'black mammy,' a disruptive presence enters the room; we all know it, we all feel it" (Wallace- Sanders 2008, xiii). These friends and colleagues were truly afraid to admit the fears they had concerning whether or not, by hiring a black woman to serve as a maid or nanny, they were replicating the previously troubling and unequal relationship between a mammy and her master.
Some artists have taken the opportunity to challenge the representations of this black stereotype. Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (Figure 3) depicts the happy cook of the southern plantation with a rifle as Saar transmits her "frustration and simmering rage onto a beloved African American woman" (Wallace-Sanders 2008, 142). Depicted with a child, Saar is challenging viewers to look deeper and realize that this child is not the white child of her master, but rather a mulatto, showing the reality of the abuse slave women were subjected to by their white masters. The middle figure stands with her tools of revolution: her broom, rifle, and pistol, ready to gain freedom by force if necessary. The appearance of a glass display box mimics the pancake box which features Aunt Jemima's smiling face, as her artwork depicts a "relic under glass" (Wallace-Sanders 2008, 143).
Joyce Scott is another artist who has attempted to reconsider the image of the Mammy through her "Mammy/Nanny" series. Made from leather and beadwork, these three-dimensional figures depict scenes between the mammy and black and white children. One of the most provocative pieces of the collection is Chainsaw Mammy,
which portrays a topless mammy with a beaded white baby chained around her waist. According to Terry Gips, this piece "does not hide the possibility of violence" as she is chained to the baby of another race (Gips 1996, 313). This "tug-of-war over her body"(Wallace- Sanders 2008, 146) represents the constant and the continual conflict of the Mammy as she negotiates between the reality of slavery and the mythic family found with the children of her white master.
The creation of the Mammy takes into account the very different attitudes and recollections of slavery in the southern United States. While we may wonder what positive images could arise out of such inhumane treatment, "to whites the period of slavery has been sentimentalized and glorified" (Parkhurst 1938, 349). Despite the acceptability of the Mammy to whites, according to Jessie Parkhurst, the Mammy remains an unacceptable symbol to African Americans. A historical moment displaying this negative attitude on the part of African Americans toward this image was the clear opposition to a monument being erected in the memory of the Mammy, a largely mythical, fictional, and exaggerated figure. African Americans opposing this monument believed that "a better memorial would be to extend the full rights of American citizenship to the descendants of these Mammies," including other suggestions of the banning of lynching, granting the right to vote, equal access to educational facilities, and an end to all practices of discrimination (Parkhurst 1938, 349-350). The warm memories of the Mammy held close to the hearts of whites has led to multiple proposals for monuments throughout the South; however, these proposals never materialized for political reasons.
Personal identity is largely affected by history as one's experiences can be dictated according to an individual's placement in the class, race, and gender hierarchies of society. As Gerda Lerner argues, "People without a history are considered not quite human and incorporate that judgment in their own thinking...they cooperate in their own oppression" (Lerner 1997, 208). The lack of a history with "truth," concerning the role of black women in the United States before, during, and after the Civil War, continues the act of oppression well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The devalution of the voices of black women, combined with fictional assumptions concerning their lives, render African American women on the margins of society, deemed less important and in effect less human. More accurate representations of black women are still ignored while fabricated stereotypes have been carried on for centuries. The image of the Mammy has become part of American consciousness because the past has been manipulated to suit the needs of the privileged class. The history of African American women and their role in America's history should be based in actual history rather than myth and fiction. Let us remember: "The dead continue to live by way of the resurrection we give them in telling their stories" (Lerner 1997, 211). However, we must take part in the construction of history, both personal and collective, in order to ensure that reality and "truth" are presented to future generations.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film. New York: Continuum, 1994.
Fuller, Lorraine. "Are We Seeing Things? The Pinesol Lady and the Ghost of Aunt Jemima." Journal of Black Studies v. 32 (September 2001): 120-131.
Gips, Terry. "Joyce J. Scott’s Mammy/ Nanny Series." Feminist Studies v.22 (Summer 1996): 311-320.
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. "African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race." Signs v. 17 (Winter 1992): 251-274.
Hooks, Bell. Aint I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981.
Jewell, K. Sue. From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of US Social Policy. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Lerner, Gerda. Why History Matters: Life and Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Morgan, Jo-Ann. "Mammy the Huckster: Selling the Old South for the New Century." American Art v. 9 (Spring 1995): 87-109.
Morton, Patricia. Disfigured Images: The Historical Assault on Afro-American Women. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Parkhurst, Jessie W. "The Role of the Black Mammy in the Plantation Household." The Journal of Negro History v. 23 (July 1938): 349-369.
Thelen, David. "Memory and American History." The Journal of American History v. 75 (March 1989): 1117-1129.
Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Edited by Alexander Husinko & Adelina Kendle
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