Black Women's Empowerment

Commentary on the Crooked Room: Mammy, Oh Mammy, Wherefore Art Thou Mammy?

In Part 2 of this commentary series, I discussed the first character introduced in Melissa Harris-Perry’s 2011 book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America: the Jezebel. The Jezebel was created in a crooked room of sorts and is one of the many stereotypes black women face in their daily lives.

Here’s a brief history of her origins. During the legal enslavement of Black Americans, this character was used to legitimize the rape and physical exploitation of black women. These women’s reproductive systems were a fundamental basis for the continued profitability of slavery. And, forced sexual intercourse between white slave-masters and young black girls was an effective method of control. But, in the late 19th century, slavery was no longer legal, the Jezebel was no longer relevant, and white plantation owners needed a logical premise to perpetually own and operate proxy slave labor. This is how the Mammy was born…

To understand the stereotype of the Mammy, one must first understand her humble beginnings. She came to be after slavery ended. And, her era lasted for almost a century. Many like to refer to the formal compromise between the North and South as the official end of slavery in 1877. In a magical place far removed from history, Black Americans became equal to their white counterparts at this time. But, in actuality, Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, and forced segregation did not legally end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. This means that the South was still very segregated and blacks were still susceptible to lynching, rape, murder, enslavement, and violent racism. And, the general southern white populace was still looking for an answer to their “Black Problem.”

Entrée Le Mammy

In the early 1900s, after slavery had been formally abolished for almost thirty years, subservience from the black population was still expected and legal through the Jim Crow laws of the South. Black women were “lovingly” referred to as mammies. And, though these women were often sent out to white homes in their teens when they were still of birthing age, the most recognizable figure for this illusory character is shown in the graphic for this post. She is older and rounded with big red lips, un-effeminate features, and a generally unappealing exterior.

The verbiage on the picture says it all.


“I know you’re not particular to a fault,

Though I’m not sure you’ll never be sued for assault.

You’re so fond of women that even a wench

Attracts your gross fancy despite her strong stench.”

The white man in the picture, laying a kiss on a mammy, is jokingly called “not particular.” In other words, he would lay up with anything that has a hole. In total contradiction with the earlier stereotype of the Jezebel, the Mammy is cast as a farm animal, an unwanted creature, or a grotesque troglodyte. And, any white man who would be openly attracted to her would be seen as a sad character with poor taste and lowly means.

This was the caricature of the Mammy. Foul smelling, totally unsavory, and the last thing a white man should find even remotely attractive. Perhaps, the most well known mammy was Hattie McDaniel who was the first black woman to win an Academy Award for her role as “Mammy” in the 1939 highly acclaimed film Gone With the Wind. To date, her performance, even the film itself, is seen as a fantastic adaptation of the Old South. And, critics, across the board, praise the movie for its time-tested appeal. The most interesting thing about this role is that McDaniel’s crowning-glory came from a performance where she was generally unattractive, portrayed as unintelligent but caring, and genuinely insignificant to most around her. This, it seems from all the hullabaloo the film received, was the role she was born to play.

Fast forward to 2011 to the critically-acclaimed movie called The Help. In the film, we meet a host of mammies. But, a sassy mammy named “Minny Jackson,” played by Octavia Spencer, and a loyal and devoted mammy named “Aibileen Clark,” played by Viola Davis, were the shining lights in the film. Jackson and Clark are sought out by a young white woman who wants to tell their “story.” And, though the film is filled with tragedy and triumph, it still harkens back to some of those same themes associated with the traditional mammy. They were frumpy, assexual, absent from their own homes and entirely devoted (as it would seem on the surface) to their white families. Harris-Perry discusses this blind devotion to whites in her book.

 “Enslaved women working as domestic servants in Southern plantations were taken from their families and forced to nurse white babies while their own infants subsisted on sugar water. They were not voluntary members of the enslaver’s family; they were women laboring under coercion and the constant threat of physical and sexual violence. “

Never mind the fact that these women’s lives were predicated on the veiled hatred the white South still held for their race. The Mammy gave way to a host of racially-driven platitudes for the subjugation of black women.

The Modern Mammy

Films like Gone With the Wind and The Help, though loved by a great many, create a deceptive allegory for the modern black woman. So, not only do these women have to contend with the notion of hyper-sexuality through the figure of the Jezebel, they also must deal with the the potential asexuality of the Mammy. But, this stereotype is particularly dubious because Mammy is not seen in a negative light (hence the Oscar winning performance by Spencer in The Help and the best actress nomination for Davis). She is loving and kind. She is cuddly and warm. And, she is almost incapable of caring for anything of her own. Her devotion is to whites and whites alone. Very clever right?

By creating this character, early 19th century whites effectively curtailed accusations that blacks did not want to be slaves or that black women did not actually love their white slave-masters’ families. The Mammy’s presence in the household gave a sense of security and tradition. And, though she was never allowed to fully integrate into the family, she was happy and jolly, right? That is what these films would have you to believe. But, in truth, these depictions are antithetical to the actual existence of these women and the message the Mammy sends to young black women.

Like the Jezebel, black women pegged with the Mammy stereotype are often categorized by some external feature or ability. For example, they are “fat girls” if they cook well, are curvier, or like to eat. Or, they have “soup cooler lips” if their lips are fuller than some others. If they wear natural hair textures, they look “manly” and their hair is “nappy.” And, my personal favorite, they are available to listen to everyone’s problems at any moment because they are caretakers. This is how movies, television shows, and the like often depict the “black friend.” She does everyone’s hair and likes fried chicken of course. This stereotype has been co-opted by the Black community. And, we often use the mischaracterization against ourselves and others. We slip in and out of the Mammy and the Jezebel at a moment’s notice assuming we must be one or the other.

Remnants of this stereotype still exist today. Just recently it was found that the black race, on the whole, is seen as “masculine.” This includes black women. From oversexed to undersexed, black women can’t seem to catch a break. If we are dressed conservatively, we are deemed manly. If we are dressed femininely, we are deemed whorish. If we wear a teenie-weenie-afro, we are deemed masculine. If we don a long flowing weave, we are deemed sexual. The two stereotypes work in tandem to further ostracize black women from the general public. And, these stereotypes force young girls to decide between frumps and humps just to try and fit in.

The only issue for the white community at-large was that the Mammy never had staying-power. When black women realized that they were being put in a “trick bag,” they responded with militance and self-worth endeavors. They became angry and adroit with demands of redress. They found culpability with others who had unfairly put them in a crooked room and subjected them to askew images of themselves. They straightened their backs a bit and got pissed off. Thereby generating the stereotype of the Sapphire…

To be continued…The Sapphire, and Shame

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