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Mammy Her Life And Times
BORN IN SLAVERY AND RAISED IN ITS PAINFUL AFTERMATH TO BECOME ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL AMERICAN ICONS, SHE HAS BEEN MADE TO ENCOMPASS LOVE AND GUILT AND RIDICULE AND WORSHIP —AND STILL SHE LIVES ON
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
Mammy began in slavery—or at least in the minds of slavery’s defenders. She was idealized by the defenders of slavery and then segregation as evidence of the humanity of the system. “Up to the age of ten we saw as much, perhaps more, of the mammy than of the mother. … The mammy first taught us to lisp and to walk,” wrote a Southerner named Lewis Blair in his 1889 tract, The Prosperity of the South Dependent Upon the Elevation of the Negro . How could they be cruel to blacks, defenders of the system asked, after having been nursed at black breasts?
But not only slavery’s defenders noticed Mammy’s in- fluence on language. The linguist J. L. Dillard argues that the Southern accent is at base an African-American accent and Mammy its prime mode of transmission among whites. During his travels in the United States in 1842 Charles Dickens observed that the women he encountered in the South “speak more or less like Negroes, from having been constantly in their childhood with a black nurse.”
On the plantation Mammy often bore a special relationship to the mistress. As a surrogate for mother, she grew to share many of her idealized qualities—not least because the limits to the role of white women echoed those of black women in the quarters. The Southern cult of Mama, which, for instance, fairly drips from classic country music, often extended to Mammy.
The Old South linked the submissive virtues it perceived in white and black women from the beginning, argued William Taylor, in his book Cavalier and Yankee . As early as 1836 plantation fiction such as that of Nathaniel Beverley Tucker drew a parallel. Tucker offered a list of the idealized qualities that white women and blacks held in common: “their humility, their grateful affection, their self-renouncing loyalty, their subordination of the heart.” Later literature sometimes depicted Mammy as a kind of vicar of the white mistress or as her shadow sister. As Catherine Clinton wrote in The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South , Mammy is “not merely a stereotype, but in fact a figment of the combined romantic imaginations of the contemporary southern ideologue and the modern southern historian.” There are few records of Mammies who actually served, as the legend has it, as the mistress’s right hand, the administrative head of the plantation. “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.” But whatever her power, Mammy was a ubiquitous presence on the plantation.
As complex a myth as she was, Mammy could not become a caricature until she left the plantation. The modern Mammy is a product of emancipation and industrialization. Mammy as commercial logotype was born along with Jim Crow, not on the plantation but in the cities and along the railroads. Black figures in packaging and advertising grew up in the 1890s, simultaneously with the arrival of fullfledged Jim Crow laws in the South. This American apartheid, C. Vann Woodward showed, first developed into a complex code of regulation in the North and arrived in the South later. It reflected a more industrial and urban society, requiring more codified relationships than the traditionally enforced ones of the by now ruined plantation. As Jim Crow became institutionalized, so Mammy, Sambo, and Golliwog became as firmly established in the firmament of entertainment and advertising as any licensed cartoon character of our own time. They were the Snoopys and Garfields of their era.
Mammy moved quickly into the new media of the twentieth century. In film she became a stock figure even before the arrival of the talkies. At last she took the form of a real human being —if only as an actress—and actresses brought a subtle, subversive sense of irony to the stock figure. Mammy figured in the series of maids who played foil to Mae West and others—“Beulah, peel me a grape!” Mae cried to Hattie McDaniel in I’m No Angel . McDaniel, who also appeared as lookout and companion for Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus , specialized in funny, back-talking roles, while Louise Beavers was more traditionally self-sacrificing. While McDaniel was a big woman, her weight flirting with three hundred pounds, Beavers was not. However rotund she appeared on screen, reports the film historian Donald Bogle, “it was a steady battle for her to stay overweight.”