Skip to main content

Mammy Her Life And Times

June 2024
12min read


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.

It was as a commercial icon that Mammy was sharpest. Customers confronted with commercial Mammies were disarmed by laughing at her caricature but sold by her positive qualities—her asserted knowledge of food and housekeeping. In Sambo: The Rise & Demise of an American Jester , Joseph Boskin shows that food products made the most use of Mammy, Sambo, and other black caricatures. As idealized servant types they suggested heartiness, quality, and the approval of those who really ran the kitchen. “Always clean, ready to serve with a crisp smile, intuitively knowledgeable and distinctively southern in their spoken words, they epitomized servility with exceptionally natural cheerfulness,” Boskin writes. Mammy and her kin were images as prepackaged as the sort of products they advertised—new sorts of brand-name, processed products, in a world where generic flour, oatmeal, and rice were still the rule. As early as 1875 the Mammy-like “Aunt Sally” had appeared on cans of baking powder, one of the first products to be branded. But if the Cream of Wheat chef was unabashedly touted as “De Bes’ Known nigger [later man ] in the world,” it was Aunt Jemima who lasted the longest.


Jemima’s story, as sketched out in Jackie Young’s Black Collectables: Mammy and Her Friends , began in 1889 when Charles Rutt, a St. Joseph, Missouri, newspaper editor, got the idea for a self-rising pancake mix that required the addition only of water. He took the name Aunt Jemima from a vaudeville song of the time; R. T. Davis Mills in St. Joseph bought the idea, and with it the supporting story.

To give character to the logo—wide-mouthed, rag-headed, crudely rendered—Davis Mills invented a whole legend. Aunt Jemima, the story went, had been a cook on the Louisiana plantation of a certain Colonel Higbee, and her reputation for fine pancakes had spread far and wide. Ads showed smiling belles and laughing older white gentlemen trying to wheedle the “secret recipe” out of the reticent and loyal Jemima. But somehow, the story went on, the shy Jemima had been persuaded not only to relinquish the secret to the Davis Mills but to tour the states, like a patent-medicine salesman, championing its wonders from the top of a flour barrel.

Jemima premiered for a national audience at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—from which blacks were largely excluded from exhibiting. (Frederick Douglass called it a “Whited Sepulcher.”) Her popularity was immediate. She quickly acquired a family: Uncle Mose, Diana, and Wade, who appeared as rag-doll covers included in the boxes of the pancake mix, to be filled with paper or rags by the customer. Later, mail- ing in box tops or redeeming coupons would get you Aunt Jemima mixing bowls, syrup pitchers, cookie jars, or salt and pepper shakers. There were also cookbooks and pamphlets with her “temptilatin’” recipes.


Nancy Green and her successors as Aunt Jemima traveled from town to town, cooking up pancakes. Local organizations tied into the promotions. One souvenir of such trips, highly valuable today, is a portable griddle complete with syrup and seasoning shakers all in the familiar red-skirted shape of Jemima. “I’se in town, honey” was a slogan that lasted for more than half a century after it was introduced in 1905.

Nancy Green died in a car accident in the early twenties, after the character she represented had been redrawn in 1917 to reflect a less cartoonish, more maternal figure. In 1925 Davis sold the Aunt Jemima brand and operation to Quaker Oats, whose gentle William Penn figure was about the same age. In the 1950s Jemima took on the face of the actress Edith Wilson, formerly a star of “Amos ’n’ Andy” on radio and the movie To Have and Have Not . She served as the touring Aunt Jemima for eighteen years. Ethel Ernestine Harper, one of the women who succeeded her, sang with the Three Ginger Snaps and appeared in The Hot Mikado with Bill Boj angles Robinson before taking the role. She died in a car crash in 1979.


Aunt Jemima was updated—made thinner and lighter—in 1968. But not until 1989, and only after the company had carried out five months of delicate research in twelve cities, did she get her present face—a sort of Diahann Carroll look, slimmer and lighter. The aim, Quaker said, was to “present Aunt Jemima in a more contemporary light, while preserving the important attributes of warmth, quality, good taste, heritage, and reliability.” Aunt Jemima had lost her kerchief.

But Aunt Jemima was only Mammy’s best-known commercial identity. She also sold Luzianne coffee and cleansers and appeared in cereal ads. Mammy beamed from fruit-box labels and sold molasses. As assurance of concerned family-style cooking, she graced menus for the Old Dixie Restaurant in Los Angeles and Mammy’s Cabin outside Atlanta. She became a figure in all sorts of kitchen and other equipment. In July 1930 one Lilly Daigre-Gore of New Orleans filed a design patent for a smoker’s stand whose tray stood atop a Mammy figure’s head. It could hold pot holders and grocery lists.

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.”

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.

But today Mammy is regarded in more complex ways too. The components of cliché have separated and grown more individual. Mammy has become mammies—real persons differentiated in literature and memoir, and problematic. A few years ago the New York Times editor Howell Raines’s magazine memoir of his own mammy, “Grady’s Gift,” struck many as sentimental, others as profound, but sketched the ambivalence that many former children encharged to former mammies have had.

Today Mammy’s Cupboard is in disrepair, looming like a mock Ozymandias over a changed landscape. Mammy’s paint is peeling, and her arms have fallen off. The restaurant is closed, its drive blocked with dozens of concrete birdbaths and garden elves, arrayed in a mocking dance. Mammy the stereotype continues to cast a shadow. But more and more it is possible to imagine Mammy as a kind of chrysalis, the fat woman from whom the proverbial inner thin woman has escaped, a shell from which the mature creature has at last emerged.

Malcolm X on Mammy Collecting Mammy

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.