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June 2024
1min read

“They have made you a shrine and a humorous fable, But they kept you a slave while they were able…”

At about the time every Tin Pan Alley hitsmith was celebrating Mammy’s charms, Stephen Vincent Benét included her in John Brown’s Body , his 1927 epic poem about the Civil War. In one of the sections about Wingate Hall, a great Georgia plantation brought low by the war, he limns Mammy as the most sophisticated protectors of her legend perceived her:

Fat Aunt Bess is older than Time But her eyes still shine like a bright, new dime, Though two generations have gone to rest On the sleepy mountain of her breast. Wingate children in Wingate Hall, From the first weak cry in the bearing-bed She has petted and punished them, one and all, She has closed their eyes when they lay dead. She raised Marse Billy when he was puny, She cared for the Squire when he got loony, Fed him and washed him and combed his head, Nobody else would do instead. The matriarch of the weak and the young, The lazy crooning, comforting tongue. She has had children of her own, But the white-skinned ones are bone of her bone. They may not be hers, but she is theirs, And if the shares were unequal shares, She does not know it, now she is old. They will keep her out of the rain and cold. And some were naughty, and some were good, But she will be warm while they have wood, Rule them and spoil them and play physician With the vast, insensate force of tradition, Half a nuisance and half a mother And legally neither one nor the other, Till at last they follow her to her grave, The family-despot, and the slave.
—Curious blossom from bitter ground, Master of masters who left you bound, Who shall unravel the mingled strands Or read the anomaly of your hands?
They have made you a shrine and a humorous fable, But they kept you a slave while they were able, And yet, there was something between the two That you shared with them and they shared with you, Brittle and dim, but a streak of gold, A genuine kindness, unbought, unsold, Graciousness founded on hopeless wrong But queerly living and queerly strong. …

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