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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
Beavers’s most important Mammy role was as Aunt Delilah in Imitation of Life (1934). Delilah is a big-screen shadow of Aunt Jemima. Her pancake recipe makes her employer rich, but she is not interested in wealth. In this strange and in many ways self-serving vision of race as grappled with by white Hollywood—Beavers and the NAACP had to fight to have the word nigger deleted from the screenplay— Delilah accepts the world of racial division and her own secondary status while her light-skinned daughter rejects not racial division but her race and her mother at the same time. She attempts to “pass,” breaking her mother’s heart. Delilah ends up rejected and heartbroken, and Mammy becomes a tragic figure. In Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House , Beavers again plays a cook and maid, Gussie, who comes up with the slogan that saves the day for ad man Gary Grant: “If it ain’t Wham, it ain’t ham.” Mr. Blandings exclaims in relief, “Give Gussie a ten-dollar raise.”
McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her performance in Gone With the Wind , probably went furthest in imprinting Mammy’s image in the popular consciousness. Even while snapping back at Miss Scarlett, her surrogate daughter, she held things together, birthed the babies, and stayed loyal even when others were fleeing slavery—an implicit justification of the system.
Ethel Waters brought extra dimensions to the Mammy stereotype on screen. If Waters in the 1949 film Pinky , Bogle asserts, “spelled the death of the one-sided Mammy figure,” she raised Mammy to her Hollywood pinnacle in The Member of the Wedding in 1952, with an implicit history of suffering annealing a heroic wisdom.
The Mammies of Southern literature, from Delta Wedding to The Member of the Wedding , were more complex, more individualized characters. Faulkner’s Dilsey is at the center of The Sound and the Fury . Likely inspired by his own mammy—Caroline Barr, or “Mammy Gallic”—she is hated and feared by Jason Compson, the eldest of the Compson sons, but is the real force holding the family together. Self-denying, stern, but sentimental too, she is the existential Mammy.
In Faulkner’s subsequently added thumbnails of his The Sound and The Fury characters, Dilsey alone remains undescribed. Even the minor black figures such as Luster get descriptions, but Dilsey’s name stands alone, above the phrase “They endured,” which is as famous in Southern interpretation as “Jesus wept” in Biblical scholarship. He dedicated Go Down Moses to her: “To Mammy/Caroline Barr/Mississippi [1840-1940]/Who was born in slavery and who gave to my family a fidelity without stint or calculation of recompense and to my childhood an immeasurable devotion and love.”
These Mammies of Southern literature are positive figures—beneficent, wise, and strong—but in large part they remain clichés, only of a new sort, redolent with folk wisdom and “natural understanding,” beloved and admired but clichés nonetheless. In Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding , the cook Berenice, played on stage and screen by Ethel Waters, is a source of comfort and wisdom. We are told of her speaking “on a long and serious subject, the words flowed one into the other and her voice began to sing. In the gray of the kitchen on summer afternoons the tone of her voice was golden and quiet, and you could listen to the color and the singing of her voice and not follow the words.” She projected a vision of a world “that was round and just and reasonable”—a world like herself.
The comfort Mammy embodied for whites could become an object of nostalgia lightly tinged with guilt. Peter Taylor writes of chauffeurs and cooks he knew growing up in the Memphis of the twenties: “There was not in those days in Memphis, any time or occasion when one felt more secure and relaxed than when one had given oneself over completely to the care and protection of the black servants who surrounded us and who created and sustained for the most part the luxury which distinguished the lives we lived then from the lives we live now.”
For many blacks, especially in the sixties, this sort of sentiment was as ridiculous and demeaning as any pickaninny. The black artist Joe Overstreet parodied Mammy on canvas in 1964 with his machine-gun-toting “New Jemima.” For white society some of the nostalgia swathes Mammy even today. But more often she simply continues to exist, her face present, her character unremarked. Aunt Jemima smiles on, not only in our cupboards but in our freezers, on frozen pancakes now. And Mammy keeps showing up anew: From New Orleans come Aunt Sally’s original Creole pralines, on whose box one finds an exotic, high-cheeked variant gazing in worldly confidence from beneath a tablecloth-checked scarf.