The Mammy
From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks -- in this case, black women -- were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.
This was the mammy caricature, and, like all caricatures, it contained a little truth surrounded by a larger lie. The caricature portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white "family," but often treated her own family with disdain. Although she had children, sometimes many, she was completely desexualized. She "belonged" to the white family, though it was rarely stated. Unlike Sambo, she was a faithful worker. She had no black friends; the white family was her entire world. Obviously, the mammy caricature was more myth than accurate portrayal.
Catherine Clinton, a historian, claimed that real antebellum mammies were rare: Records do acknowledge the presence of female slaves who served as the "right hand" of plantation mistresses. Yet documents from the planter class during the first fifty years following the American Revolution reveal only a handful of such examples. Not until after Emancipation did black women run white households or occupy in any significant number the special positions ascribed to them in folklore and fiction. 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 period. In the primary records from before the Civil War, hard evidence for its existence simply does not appear.
According to Patricia Turner, Professor of African American and African Studies, before the Civil War only very wealthy whites could afford the luxury of "utilizing the (black) women as house servants rather than as field hands." Moreover, Turner claims that house servants were usually mixed raced, skinny (blacks were not given much food), and young (fewer than 10 percent of black women lived beyond fifty years).
Why were the fictional mammies so different from their real-life counterparts? The answer lies squarely within the complex sexual relations between blacks and whites. Abolitionists claimed that one of the many brutal aspects of slavery was that slave owners sexually exploited their female slaves, especially light-skinned ones who approximated the mainstream definition of female sexual attractiveness. The mammy caricature was deliberately constructed to suggest ugliness. Mammy was portrayed as dark-skinned, often pitch black, in a society that regarded black skin as ugly, tainted. She was obese, sometimes morbidly overweight. Moreover, she was often portrayed as old, or at least middle-aged. The attempt was to desexualize mammy. The implicit assumption was this: No reasonable white man would choose a fat, elderly black woman instead of the idealized white woman. The black mammy was portrayed as lacking all sexual and sensual qualities. The de-eroticism of mammy meant that the white wife -- and by extension, the white family was safe.
The sexual exploitation of black women by white men was unfortunately common during the antebellum period, and this was true irrespective of the economic relationship involved; in other words, black women were sexually exploited by rich whites, middle class whites, and poor whites. Sexual relations between blacks and whites -- whether consensual or rapes -- were taboo; yet they occurred often. All black women and girls, regardless of their physical appearances, were vulnerable to being sexually assaulted by white men. The mammy caricature tells many lies; in this case, the lie is that white men did not find black women sexually desirable.
The mammy caricature implied that black women were only fit to be domestic workers; thus, the stereotype became a rationalization for economic discrimination. During the Jim Crow period, approximately 1877 to 1966, America's race-based, race-segregated job economy limited most blacks to menial, low paying, low status jobs. Black women found themselves forced into one job category, house servant.
Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a biographer of the Civil Rights Movement, described the limited opportunities for black women in the 1950s: Jobs for clerks in dimestores, cashiers in markets, and telephone operators were numerous, but were not open to black women. A fifty-dollar-a-week worker could employ a black domestic to clean her home, cook the food, wash and iron clothes, and nurse the baby for as little as twenty dollars per week.
During slavery only the very wealthy could afford to hire black women as "house servants," but during Jim Crow even middle class white women could hire black domestic workers. These black women were not mammies. Mammy was "black, fat with huge breasts, and head covered with a kerchief to hide her nappy hair, strong, kind, loyal, sexless, religious and superstitious." She spoke bastardized English; she did not care about her appearance. She was politically safe. She was culturally safe. She was, of course, a figment of a white imagination, a nostalgic yearning for a reality that never had been. The real-life black domestics of the Jim Crow era were poor women denied other opportunities. They performed many of the duties of the fictional mammies, but, unlike the caricature, they were dedicated to their own families, and often resentful of their lowly societal status.

Fictional Mammies

The slavery-era mammy did not want to be free. She was too busy serving as surrogate mother/grandmother to white families. Mammy was so loyal to her white family that she was often willing to risk her life to defend them. In D. W. Griffith's movie
"The Birth of a Nation" (1915) -- based on Thomas Dixon's racist novel The Clansman -- the mammy defends her white master's home against black and white Union soldiers. The message was clear: Mammy would rather fight than be free. In the famous movie "Gone With The Wind" (1939), the black mammy also fights black soldiers whom she believes to be a threat to the white mistress of the house. Mammy found life on vaudeville stages, in novels, in plays, and finally, in films and on television. White men, wearing black face makeup, did vaudeville skits as Sambos, Mammies, and other anti-black stereotypes. The standard for mammy depictions was offered by Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book's mammy, Aunt Chloe, is described in this way:
A round, black, shiny face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with the whites of eggs, like one of her own tea rusks. Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment from under a well-starched checkered turban, bearing on it; however, if we must confess it, a little of that tinge of self-consciousness which becomes the first cook of the neighborhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be.6 Aunt Chloe was nurturing and protective of "her" white family, but less caring toward her own children. She is the prototypical fictional mammy: self-sacrificing, white-identified, fat, asexual, good-humored, a loyal cook, housekeeper and quasi-family member.

During the first half of the 1900s, while black Americans were demanding political, social, and economic advancement, Mammy was increasingly popular in the field of entertainment. The first talking movie was 1927's "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson in blackface singing, "Mammy." In 1934 the movie "Imitation of Life" told the story of a black maid, Aunt Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) who inherited a pancake recipe. This movie mammy gave the valuable recipe to Miss Bea, her boss. Miss Bea successfully marketed the recipe. She offered Aunt Delilah a twenty percent interest in the pancake company. "You'll have your own car. Your own house," Miss Bea tells Aunt Delilah. Mammy is frightened. "My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss Bea? I can't live with you? Oh, Honey Chile, please don't send me away." Aunt Delilah, though she had lived her entire life in poverty, does not want her own house. "How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie (Miss Bea's daughter) if I ain't here... I'se your cook. And I want to stay your cook." Regarding the pancake recipe, Aunt Delilah said, "I gives it to you, Honey. I makes you a present of it."7 Aunt Delilah worked to keep the white family stable, but her own family disintegrated -- her self-hating daughter rejected her, then ran away from home to "pass for white." Near the movie's conclusion, Aunt Delilah dies "of a broken heart."
"Imitation of Life" was probably the highlight of Louise Beavers' acting career. Almost all of her characters, before and after the Aunt Delilah role, were mammy or mammy-like. She played hopelessly naive maids in Mae West's "She Done Him Wrong" (1933), and Jean Harlow's "Bombshell" (1933). She played loyal servants in "Made for Each Other" (1939), and "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" (1948), and several other movies.
Beavers had a weight problem: it was a constant battle for her to stay overweight. She often wore padding to give her the appearance of a mammy. Also, she had been reared in California, and she had to fabricate a southern accent. Moreover, she detested cooking. She was truly a fictional mammy.
"Imitation of Life" was remade (without the pancake recipe storyline) in 1959. It starred Lana Turner as the White mistress, and Juanita Moore (in an Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actress performance as the mammy). It was also a tear-jerker.
Hattie McDaniel was another well known mammy portrayer. In her early films, for example "The Gold West" (1932), and "The Story of Temple Drake" (1933), she played unobtrusive, weak mammies. However, her role in "Judge Priest" (1934) signaled the beginning of the sassy, quick-tempered mammies that she popularized. She played the saucy mammy in many movies, including, "Music is Magic" (1935), "The Little Colonel" (1935), "Alice Adams" (1935), "Saratoga" (1937), and "The Mad Miss Manton" (1938). In 1939, she played Scarlett O'Hara's sassy but loyal servant in "Gone With the Wind." McDaniel won an Oscar for best supporting actress, the first Black to win an Academy Award.
Hattie McDaniel was a gifted actress who added depth to the character of mammy; unfortunately, she, like almost all blacks from the 1920s through 1950s, were typecast as servants. She was often criticized by Blacks for perpetuating the mammy caricature. She responded this way: "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."8
"Beulah" was a television show, popular from 1950 to 1953, in which a mammy nurtures a white suburban family. Hattie McDaniel originated the role for radio; Louise Beavers performed the role on television. The Beulah image resurfaced in the 1980s when Nell Carter, a talented Black singer, played a mammy-like role on the situation comedy "Gimme a Break." She was dark-skinned, overweight, sassy, white-identified, and like Aunt Delilah in "Imitation of Life," content to live in her white employer's home and nurture the white family.

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