The above pictures were collected by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, to document the lives of women who suffered as caretakers of white children.
History of the Mammy archetype:
From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks — in this case, black women — were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.
This was the mammy caricature that portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white “family,” but often treated her own family with disdain. Although she had children, sometimes many, she was completely desexualized. She “belonged” to the white family, though it was rarely stated. Unlike Sambo, she was a faithful worker. She had no black friends; the white family was her entire world. Obviously, the mammy caricature was more myth than accurate portrayal.
Catherine Clinton (1982), a historian, claimed that real antebellum mammies were rare:
According to Patricia Turner (1994), Professor of African American and African Studies, before the Civil War only very wealthy whites could afford the luxury of “utilizing the (black) women as house servants rather than as field hands” (p. 44). Moreover, Turner claims that house servants were usually mixed raced, skinny (blacks were not given much food), and young (fewer than 10 percent of black women lived beyond fifty years). Why were the fictional mammies so different from their real-life counterparts? The answer lies squarely within the complex sexual relations between blacks and whites.
Abolitionists claimed that one of the many brutal aspects of slavery was that slave owners sexually exploited their female slaves, especially light-skinned ones who approximated the mainstream definition of female sexual attractiveness. The mammy caricature was deliberately constructed to suggest ugliness. Mammy was portrayed as dark-skinned, often pitch black, in a society that regarded black skin as ugly, tainted. She was obese, sometimes morbidly overweight. Moreover, she was often portrayed as old, or at least middle-aged. The attempt was to desexualize mammy. The implicit assumption was this: No reasonable white man would choose a fat, elderly black woman instead of the idealized white woman. The black mammy was portrayed as lacking all sexual and sensual qualities. The de-eroticism of mammy meant that the white wife — and by extension, the white family, was safe.
The sexual exploitation of black women by white men was unfortunately common during the antebellum period, and this was true irrespective of the economic relationship involved; in other words, black women were sexually exploited by rich whites, middle class whites, and poor whites. Sexual relations between blacks and whites — whether consensual or rapes — were taboo; yet they occurred often. All black women and girls, regardless of their physical appearances, were vulnerable to being sexually assaulted by white men. The mammy caricature tells many lies; in this case, the lie is that white men did not find black women sexually desirable.
The mammy caricature implied that black women were only fit to be domestic workers; thus, the stereotype became a rationalization for economic discrimination. During the Jim Crow period, approximately 1877 to 1966, America’s race-based, race-segregated job economy limited most blacks to menial, low paying, low status jobs. Black women found themselves forced into one job category, house servant. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987), a biographer of the Civil Rights Movement, described the limited opportunities for black women in the 1950s:
During slavery only the very wealthy could afford to “purchase” black women and use them as “house servants,” but during Jim Crow even middle class white women could hire black domestic workers. These black women were not mammies. Mammy was “black, fat with huge breasts, and head covered with a kerchief to hide her nappy hair, strong, kind, loyal, sexless, religious and superstitious” (Christian, 1980, pp. 11-12). She spoke bastardized English; she did not care about her appearance. She was politically safe. She was culturally safe. She was, of course, a figment of the white imagination, a nostalgic yearning for a reality that never had been. The real-life black domestics of the Jim Crow era were poor women denied other opportunities. They performed many of the duties of the fictional mammies, but, unlike the caricature, they were dedicated to their own families, and often resentful of their lowly societal status.
A mammy is a Southern United States archetype for a black woman who, often enslaved, worked for a white family nursing the family’s children. The word “mammy” is a variant on the word “mother”.
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.
The dress often reflected the status of her owner or employer. The mammy was usually neat and clean and wore attire that was suitable for her domestic duties. Sometimes a mammy considered herself to be “dressed up”, but that was usually just an addition of a bonnet and a silk velvet mantle, which probably belonged to her mistress. Sometimes she would even don a Sunday black silk.
Like most of the slaves at that time, the mammy was often illiterate though intelligent in her own sense. Among many of the slaves, there could have been a mammy who possessed the abilities to read and write, often taught to her by the children of the family for whom she worked. However, as intelligent as she might have been, most of her intelligence was a result of past experiences and conflicts. In particular, a mammy of an aristocratic family could be identified by her air of refinement.
When the mammy did not stay in the house of her master or was not busy attending to the needs of the master’s children, she would usually live in a cabin that was distinguished differently than the cabins of the other servants in either size or structure with her husband and children. Her cabin stood near the “big house”, or the master’s house but at a distance from the cabins of the other servants.
Although the duties were far less tiring and strenuous than those of the other servants, her hours were often long, leaving little time for her own leisure. It was not until the mammy had become too old for these duties that she would enjoy any home life of her own, since she was always preoccupied with the home life of her master. There was a flexibility about the mammy’s duties that distinguished her from just being an ordinary nurse or a wet nurse, even though there was a possibility that she could perform either of these tasks. In some of the more wealthy households, the mammy had assistants that would help her take care of the household’s children. These women were often much younger than the mammy herself.
The mammy, unlike the other servants, was usually not up for sale, and the children of the mammy would be kept in the same family for as long as possible, retaining the same relationships that the mammy had with the master.
The role of the mammy in plantation households grew out of the roles of African American slaves on the plantation. African American servants played vital roles in the plantation household. The majority of these duties generally were related to caring for the children of the family, thus relieving the mistress of the house of all the drudgery work that is associated with child care. When the children had grown up and were able to take care of themselves properly, the mammy’s main role was to help the mistress with household tasks. As her years of service with the family increased, the mammy’s sphere of influence increased as well. She was next to the mistress in authority and had the ability to give orders to everybody in the house.
The mammy was often considered to be part of the family as much as its blood members were considered. Although she was considered of a lower status, she was still included in the inner circle. She has often been referred to as a “unique type of foster motherhood.” Aside from just tending to the needs of the children, the mammy was also responsible for teaching the proper etiquettes to them, such as addressing the elders on the plantation as “aunt” or “uncle”, as well as what was best to say on a particular occasion and what was not. The mammy was able to discipline their children whenever they performed something undesirable and was able to retain their respect towards her, even after the children had grown to adults.
Similar to the image of Aunt Jemima, the image of the mammy was given a contemporary makeover as well as she appeared in television sitcoms. Some of the more contemporary features that the mammy received were that her head rag was removed, she became smaller in size, as well as lighter in complexion. In addition, her employer was not always white. Some of the contemporary television sitcoms which featured mammies include Maude, where Esther Rolle, who played the character Florida, worked as a domestic for a white family. A spin-off titled Good Times was made, where Rolle’s character became the center of the series; the show focused on her family, which lived generally happy lives in a low-income housing project. Other television series that featured mammies as characters include That’s My Mama, Gimme a Break! and What’s Happening!!. When other contemporary mammies emerged, they usually retained their occupation as a domestic and exhibited these physical feature changes; however, their emotional qualities remained intact. These contemporary mammies continued to be quick witted and remained highly opinionated. A new twist in the outlook of the contemporary mammy occurred in the sitcom The Jeffersons, where Florence, a maid played by Marla Gibbs, worked for an affluent African American family.
Mammy characters were a staple of minstrel show, giving rise to many sentimental show tunes dedicated to or mentioning mammies, including Al Jolson’s “My Mammy” from The Jazz Singer and Judy Garland’s performance of “Swanee” from A Star is Born (a song originally made popular by Jolson). Various mammy characters appeared in radio and TV shows. One prominent example was the radio and later short-lived television series Beulah, which featured a black maid named Beulah who helped solve a white family’s problems. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Mammy Two Shoes, the housekeeper in the Tom and Jerry shorts presented an animated example of the mammy, complete with dark skin and a Black accent. As a parody of this stereotype, 1984 Frank Zappa album Thing-Fish featured characters called “mammy nuns”.
In the early 20th century, the mammy character was common in many films. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her performance as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind in 1939. Common roles in American mass media seeming to be reserved for the Mammy stereotype include secretaries, hospital/medical practice assistants and Greasy spoon diner order takers.
The slavery-era mammy did not want to be free. She was too busy serving as surrogate mother/grandmother to white families. Mammy was so loyal to her white family that she was often willing to risk her life to defend them. In D. W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) — based on Thomas Dixon’s racist novel The Clansman (1905) — the mammy defends her white master’s home against black and white Union soldiers. The message was clear: Mammy would rather fight than be free. In the famous movie Gone With The Wind (Selznick & Fleming, 1939), the black mammy also fights black soldiers whom she believes to be a threat to the white mistress of the house.
Mammy found life on vaudeville stages, in novels, in plays, and finally, in films and on television. White men, wearing black face makeup, did vaudeville skits as Sambos, Mammies, and other anti-black stereotypes. The standard for mammy depictions was offered by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book’s mammy, Aunt Chloe, is described in this way:
Aunt Chloe was nurturing and protective of “her” white family, but less caring toward her own children. She is the prototypical fictional mammy: self-sacrificing, white-identified, fat, asexual, good-humored, a loyal cook, housekeeper and quasi-family member.
During the first half of the 1900s, while black Americans were demanding political, social, and economic advancement, Mammy was increasingly popular in the field of entertainment. The first talking movie was 1927’sThe Jazz Singer (Crosland) with Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy.” In 1934 the movie Imitation of Life(Laemmle & Stahl) told the story of a black maid, Aunt Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) who inherited a pancake recipe. This movie mammy gave the valuable recipe to Miss Bea, her boss. Miss Bea successfully marketed the recipe. She offered Aunt Delilah a twenty percent interest in the pancake company.
"You’ll have your own car. Your own house," Miss Bea tells Aunt Delilah. Mammy is frightened. "My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss Bea? I can’t live with you? Oh, Honey Chile, please don’t send me away." Aunt Delilah, though she had lived her entire life in poverty, does not want her own house. "How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie (Miss Bea’s daughter) if I ain’t here… I’se your cook. And I want to stay your cook." Regarding the pancake recipe, Aunt Delilah said, "I gives it to you, Honey. I makes you a present of it" (Bogle, 1994, p. 57). Aunt Delilah worked to keep the white family stable, but her own family disintegrated — her self-hating daughter rejected her, then ran away from home to "pass for white." Near the movie’s conclusion, Aunt Delilah dies "of a broken heart."
Imitation of Life was probably the highlight of Louise Beavers’ acting career. Almost all of her characters, before and after the Aunt Delilah role, were mammy or mammy-like. She played hopelessly naive maids in Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933), and Jean Harlow’s Bombshell (Stromberg & Fleming, 1933). She played loyal servants in Made for Each Other (Selznick & Cromwell, 1939), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Frank, Panama & Potter, 1948), and several other movies.
Beavers had a weight problem: it was a constant battle for her to stay overweight. She often wore padding to give her the appearance of a mammy. Also, she had been reared in California, and she had to fabricate a southern accent. Moreover, she detested cooking. She was truly a fictional mammy.
Imitation of Life was remade (without the pancake recipe storyline) in 1959 (Hunter & Sirk). It starred Lana Turner as the white mistress, and Juanita Moore (in an Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actress performance) as the mammy. It was also a tear-jerker.
Hattie McDaniel was another well known mammy portrayer. In her early films, for example The Golden West (Grainger & Howard, 1932), and The Story of Temple Drake (Glazer & Roberts, 1933), she played unobtrusive, weak mammies. However, her role in Judge Priest (Wurtzel & Ford, 1934) signaled the beginning of the sassy, quick-tempered mammies that she popularized. She played the saucy mammy in many movies, including, Music is Magic (Stone & Marshall, 1935), The Little Colonel (DeSylva & Butler, 1935), Alice Adams (Berman & Stevens, 1935), Saratoga (Hyman & Conway, 1937), and The Mad Miss Manton (Wolfson & Jason, 1938). In 1939, she played Scarlett O’Hara’s sassy but loyal servant in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel won an Oscar for best supporting actress, the first black to win an Academy Award.
Hattie McDaniel was a gifted actress who added depth to the character of mammy; unfortunately, she, like almost all blacks from the 1920s through 1950s, was typecast as a servant. She was often criticized by blacks for perpetuating the mammy caricature. She responded this way: “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one” (Bogle, 1994, p. 82).
Beulah was a television show, popular from 1950 to 1953, in which a mammy nurtures a white suburban family. Hattie McDaniel originated the role for radio; Louise Beavers performed the role on television. The Beulah image resurfaced in the 1980s when Nell Carter, a talented black singer, played a mammy-like role on the situation comedy Gimme a Break. She was dark-skinned, overweight, sassy, white-identified, and like Aunt Delilah in Imitation of Life, content to live in her white employer’s home and nurture the white family.