Mammy, the Mule and Equally Yoked: Observations of Black Female Gender Identity

To continue the conversation regarding the issues we see displayed by certain females of the Black Community I decided to dissect a few contributing factors that may have led us here.

When discussing incidences of Black female identity we must first go back to determine where we get our cultural ideals from.

What do Black women look like?

Who is she?

Who gets to determine how she should and should not appear?

As usual, for those who consider themselves part of the African American identified society, the basis of our understanding on who and what and how we are perceived is buried in slavery day stereotypes.

Introducing Mammy:

“The mammy often had physical attributes that the Western culture would associate with masculinity. The mammy was usually a grossly overweight, large-breasted woman who is desexualized, maternal, and nonthreatening to white people but may be hostile towards men. Many of these characteristics were denied to African American female slaves but were generally attributed to the mammy. Wiki

You may think you don’t know who Mammy is but if you’ve ever watched 70’s sitcoms then you are familiar with our present day Mammy archetype. Namely Florida Evans on Maude and later on Good Times, Florence the maid on the Jeffersons, Shirley of What’s Happening and Nell Carter on Gimmie A Break.

In each of these characters we see the traditional behavior attributed to Mammy. The loud and aggressive one line ‘zingers’ (Shirley and Florence), neck rolling, combative, dark complexioned and over weight heroine is the surrogate mother that keeps the family together.

Florida Evans, due to the ethical considerations of actor Esther Rolle did not display these above mentioned characteristics to the extent as the others did. However, this was achieved only because Rolle had the professional influence needed to negotiate how her character would be developed on the show Good Times.

Conflict concerning the direction of the show’s story line led to both she and her sitcom “husband”, actor John Amos to leave the show prior to its cancellation in 1979.

It should be noted that she was also the only “Mammy” to not only speak proper English but her character’s personality was kind and well mannered. She is also the only female to have had a husband and home of her own, though she lived in the projects.

The remaining Mammy characters are spin offs of two dimensional domestics who only appeared in the environment of their employer’s home or place of employment.

I see my foster  mother, who was the spitting image of the type of woman Esther Rolle, depicted in the Good Times sitcom.

Shirley, the hot tempered waitress in the sitcom What’s Happening is where we find the familiar neck rolling, verbally aggressive Mammy whose contact with other characters is peppered with insults and threats specifically aimed at the show’s three male leading characters.

When asked to do basic function required by her position as a waitress in a college burger joint, her threats of violence and hostile behavior is lauded as ‘comedy’, punctuated by laugh tracks played in the background to let us know that her behavior is meant to be funny. I am going to assert that her ‘mouth’ came by way of the women’s right movement, which also made for a great place to mix in some Jezebel for good measure.

Nell Carter, who played a domestic to a white family was dark complexioned, overweight, with no visible family of her own. Her existence was only within the context of her being a servant to her employers. There was no memorable story line or mention of a husband, children or a life of her own. She is merely a human piece of furniture there to satisfy the needs and demands of those around her as a stand in maternal figure and caretaker.

The absence of a personal life of her own, along with her jovial demeanor in times of good and bad, implies that all Mammy needs to be happy are kids and a spectator view of everyone else’s life. Between the times of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Florida Evans, Mammy lost the existence of a family, which would include a man/husband and a sex life. Her existence was erased and adjusted so as not to tarnish the image and sexual value of her white counterpart. Rather than possibly having each woman in competition, they just removed all that made Mammy a woman, but for her nurturing and cooking capabilities.

One of the earliest fictionalized versions of the mammy figure was Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Patricia Turner explains in Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies that the difference between this character and subsequent caricatures is the presence of a world away from the white family: “Stowe’s decision to portray Aunt Chloe in a cabin feeding her three children while Uncle Tom and George Shelby looked on did give Aunt Chloe something future mammies often lacked–an implied sex life.” [Source]

The absence of a male figure and children of her own is pivotal in that this mirrors the current trend of fatherless children and female led households as being ‘normal’ for African Americans. Though Mammy traditionally has no man or husband, when children were mentioned in the Mammy dialect, they were often seen as unruly, out of control and hopeless.

She is matronly, a-sexual, hard working and ‘takes no nonsense’ from people her own complexion. If she had a husband at one point, she no longer wants nor cares to have a male counterpart, her life is fulfilled by her days spent as the dutiful hired help.

Mammy has developed into a single mother, with unexplained children who has no interest in herself, her appearance or her personal life. She is at the mercy of others, spending her days making sure everyone else but her is okay. She is praised for ‘being a good woman’ and as the pillar of the white family, her value is reinforced as a tool of society and  not as a participant in it. This may remind you of those Black women who protest that ‘all I got are my kids’ or establish their entire existence by playing a thankless “Mammy” role to her own kids, plus the children of others. It’s a noble cause.

The depiction of a nurturing, stable and complete Black family does not appear again until the 1990’s The Cosby Show. The decision to create this type of show was directly related to the efforts of Bill Cosby who set out to create an alternative Black experience based upon educated, upwardly mobile and healthy Black family norms.

Both he and the show were criticized for being an unrealistic depiction of Black Americans though the show was based upon his own personal life, as he and his wife are both university educated upwardly mobile.

In part two I will further the discussion of the Mammy archetype with the inclusion of men in drag who have historically depicted Black women in early theater and cinema.

We will review both the history and current acceptability of men dressed in women’s clothes and why their ’emulating’ Black women is an accepted representation of authentic Black women, i.e. Big Momma’s House and Tyler Perry’s Madea character.

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