Mammy Her Life And Times

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On Highway 61, just outside of Natchez, Mississippi, stands Mammy’s Cupboard, a thirty-foot-high concrete figure of a black woman. For years she was a famous landmark, staring with electric eyes from beneath a pillbox cap, wearing earrings made of horseshoes, and holding a tray. Under Mammy’s red brick skirts, punched with arched windows, Mrs. Henry Gaude operated a small restaurant, its dining room supported inside with cypress beams recovered from a cotton-gin house. Gaude catered to visitors drawn by the Natchez Pilgrimage of Homes—a tour of the town’s grand old houses and an effective celebration of the plantation myth. Edward Weston photographed the place, whitewashed, in 1941; later the familiar round blue sign of the old Bell system stood at the door and out front were three Shell gas pumps, one white, one yellow, and one sky blue.

 

Mammy’s Cupboard is an informal monument to one of the most problematic and profound icons of American culture: Mammy. She is a character as powerfully imprinted as the English nanny, a psychological, social, commercial, and racist stereotype who looms large in the American commedia dell’arte of legend and literature—Southern earth mother, source of nutrition, wisdom, comfort, and discipline, cook, adviser, mediator. In such personifications as theater’s Ma Rainey and television’s Beulah, in literature and film, she remains in myth and memory the most positive and yet most dangerous of all racist stereotypes. Sambo is no longer acceptable, but Aunt Jemima remains on the pancake-mix box, repeatedly updated, a shiny happy face.

The strangest turn in Mammy’s biography, however, is that she should be so much in demand today, when the enforcers of political correctness patrol our culture and a rising tide of scholarly and popular interest in heroic black women from Harriet Tubman to Marian Wright Edelman has swept the country. While bookstores are full of reissues of Sojourner Truth and Zora Neale Hurston, collectors of Mammy cookie jars, postcards, and packaging have become more numerous and more fervent (see “Collecting Mammy,” page 86). Odder still is that the two groups overlap.

As Aunt Jemima, her most cartoonlike incarnation, Mammy stands with Sambo, Uncle Tom, and Uncle Ben, the coon, the pickaninny, and the golliwog. As a commercial character she was close kin to the Cream of Wheat chef, the Gold Dust Twins, and Hambone. Food and cleaning products were the chief ones to use black stereotypes; these were the subjects, it was implied, about which blacks knew better than whites. But Mammy was more complicated. All sorts of feelings and ideas became associated with her stereotype. She not only fed and raised white children but often mediated between whites and blacks. “Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies,” was the classic line of Butterfly McQueen as Prissy in Gone With the Wind , but Hattie McDaniel as Mammy did know midwifing and child raising and much more.

Nurturing and protective, self-sacrificing, long-suffering, wise, often world-weary but never bitter, Mammy mixed kindness with sternness and wrapped her own identity inside the weight of her heartiness, her own sexuality inside her role as surrogate mother, teacher, and cook. Her outside life—especially her love life—is almost always opaque. If she has children, they tend to be treated more brusquely than the white children in her charge. And she never escapes her sense of the limitations of being black.

Mammy’s legend was created in answer to the critics of slavery and Jim Crow; her reality was to become an ambivalent, often haunting register of the complexities of guilt and love white Americans felt. The mythology was created, according to scholars, before the Civil War, as a Southern rebuttal to Northern charges of sexual predation on black women—she was a counterbalance to the octoroon mistress. The historian Catherine Clinton argues that the icon of “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.”

 

Only later did Mammy enter the public stage. One of the better-known minstrel singers of his day, Billy Kersands, made a song called “Old Aunt Jemima” popular in the1870s. But truly, images become characters in America when they get jobs in sales: Mammy as stereotype was given her most vivid visual embodiment by Aunt Jemima, who made her debut a century ago in the person of one Nancy Green, hired to stand atop a flour barrel at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.