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Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=170676
The University of Michigan Press
INTRODUCTION
The “Mammi‹cation” of the Nation:
Mammy and the American Imagination
Nostalgia is best de‹ned as a yearning for that
which we know we have destroyed.
—david blight
The various incarnations of the mammy ‹gure have had a profound
in›uence on American culture. There is virtually no medium that has not
paid homage to the mammy in some form or another. In his series “American Myths,” for example, artist Andy Warhol included both the mammy and
Aunt Jemima, along with Howdy Doody, Uncle Sam, Dracula, and the
Wicked Witch of the West (‹gs. 1 and 2).1 In the late 1980s, Italian photographer Olivero Toscani created an advertisement for Benetton featuring
a close-up of a white infant nursing at the breast of a headless, darkskinned black woman wearing a red Shetland sweater (‹g. 3). The advertisement was met with unbridled criticism from African Americans, yet it
won more advertising awards than any other image in Benetton’s advertising history.2 Today, tourists visiting Lancaster, Kentucky, can tour the former slave plantation of Governor William Owsley, ironically called Pleasant Retreat. The restored home features many remnants of the Old South,
including a “charming mammy bench,” a combination rocking chair and
cradle designed to allow mammies to nurse an infant and rock an additional
baby at the same time.3 Diminutive mammy “nipple dolls” made in the
1920s from rubber bottle nipples with tiny white baby dolls cradled in their
arms are both a “well-kept secret” and an excellent investment by collectors
of southern Americana (‹g. 4).4
Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=170676
The University of Michigan Press
This book probes these images and themes as they proliferated between the 1820s and 1935.
The most recognizable mammy, the one immortalized in 1930s ‹lms
by African American actresses Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, Louise
Beavers, and Butter›y McQueen, marks a pivotal moment in the history of
the stereotype, but the success of their portrayals was predicated upon its
being deeply embedded within the popular imagination long before Gone
with the Wind opened in Atlanta in 1936.5
“Mammy” is part of the lexicon of antebellum mythology that continues to have a provocative and tenacious hold on the American psyche. Her
large dark body and her round smiling face tower over our imaginations,
causing more accurate representations of African American women to
wither in her shadow. The mammy’s stereotypical attributes—her deeply
sonorous and effortlessly soothing voice, her in‹nite patience, her raucous
laugh, her self-deprecating wit, her implicit understanding and acceptance
of her inferiority and her devotion to whites—all point to a long-lasting
and troubled marriage of racial and gender essentialism, mythology, and
southern nostalgia.
This wedding took place between the 1820s and the mid–twentieth
century as the mammy became the most widely recognized representation of an African American woman, putting her at the center of a dynamic interracial debate over constructions of loyalty, maternal devotion, and southern memory. There is a rich and unmined history of
responses by African American artists to the mammy stereotype. They
range from Frederick Douglass’s revised portrait of his mother in his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), to an early-twentiethcentury tale of a mammy who kills a white baby. The range of responses
and appropriations re›ects the contradictions inherent in the original
image.
Who created this mammy-mother, and what does she reveal about race
and American culture? Why do so many portraits of her insist that she preferred white children to her own? How did her size and shape, her color,
and her wardrobe contribute to this representation of her as the other
mother, as über-nanny, as the ultimate symbol of maternal devotion? How
did she become so crucial to our understanding of slavery, gender, motherhood, and memory in the American South?
This book treats the mammy ‹gure as one example of how myth, biog-
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mammy
Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=170676
The University of Michigan Press
raphy, ‹ction, history, and material culture merge in a dispute about race,
about motherhood, and about southern nostalgia in American culture. In
addition to famous literary representations of mammy characters, this
study highlights visual images and cultural artifacts as integral to the
mammy ‹gure. As we broaden our ability to interpret cultural forces by
reading relevant material culture, we can better understand how objects
function in tandem with words. This is crucial because both the historic
and the contemporary interpretations of the mammy too often isolate the
image within narrow categories: as a literary stereotype, or as a historic reality, or as an advertising trademark, or as a visual subject. These approaches reduce the complexity of the mammy’s powerful presence in
American consciousness. This book examines the mammy ‹gure as a signpost pointing to concepts and ideals extending far beyond the stereotype;
the wide-ranging representations of the mammy ‹gure re›ect the various
ways in which this image has shaped and continues to in›uence American
concepts of race and gender. My work is informed by Foucault’s theory of
the body as a site of struggle; with that lens in place, the representation of
the mammy’s body is the site where ‹ction, history, autobiography, memoir, and popular culture meet in battle over the dominant representation of
African American womanhood, and African American motherhood more
speci‹cally.
For example, when we reimagine the antebellum plantation as the body
politic, we see how the mammy’s body serves as a tendon between the races,
connecting the muscle of African American slave labor with the skeletal
power structure of white southern aristocracy. Her body nurtured both
African American slave children and their future owners—sometimes simultaneously. Focusing on the mammy’s body, and by extension her maternity, means seeing the body in a metonymic relationship to personhood, an
essential component of recasting the mammy as more than a turban and a
smile—as a transitional object for a nation moving from one developmental stage to another. This emphasis pushes us to better understand why sentimental southern representations of black corporeality, like the mammy,
continue to be both provocative and evocative.
One signi‹cant point to establish is the difference between the literary
character and stereotype of the mammy, or the famous advertising trademark of Aunt Jemima, and the actual African American women whose
names were lost when they became “Mammy.”
Introduction
g 3
Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=170676
The University of Michigan Press
Where No One Knows Your Name
Every border in that big house knows mammy, but I doubt if one of them knows
her name; I do not.
—eliza m. ripley
The words mammy, Auntie, and Negro nurse or colored nurse are all used in antebellum ‹ction to describe both a person and a role within the antebellum
plantation home; she serves as baby nurse, cook, and all-around domestic
help. Many historians have argued that she was “invented” after the Civil
War as part of the Lost Cause mythology, an excellent point of departure
for this study, which is strictly speaking neither historical nor sociological
but interdisciplinary.
The earliest use of the word mammy in reference to slave women caring
for white children occurs in 1810 in a travel narrative about the American
South. The American Dictionary of Regional English traces the etymological
roots of the word to a blending of ma’am and mamma.6 There is evidence
that the term was ‹rst used as a more common southern term for mother.
The term mammy is not consistently linked to speci‹c patterns of behavior
before 1850, but by 1820 the word was almost exclusively associated with
African American women serving as wet nurses and caretakers of white
children.
Mammy and Aunt Jemima are often used interchangeably today, but it is
signi‹cant that the former predates the latter by almost a century. Aunt
Jemima was introduced to the world at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair as a
Reconstructionist alter ego to the mammy; the mammy’s domain is the
nursery, while Aunt Jemima’s is the kitchen. Aunt Jemima offered northerners the southern antebellum experience of having a mammy, without
actually participating in slavery. In this way, her popularity bolstered the
romantic mythology of the southern plantation.
As I discuss in chapter 3, in the texts of Aunt Jemima advertisements the
terms Old South, old time, and plantation home appear as incantations invoking
the spirit of the antebellum South.7 Aunt Jemima was created as a trademark that tapped into the national longing for an established and mythological Old South. This romanticized mythology of the plantation as a utopia
was transferred into the commercial and marketing arena as an effort to reunite the country after the Civil War. The comprehensive history of Aunt
Jemima as an advertising trademark is well documented in M. M. Manning’s
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mammy
Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=170676
The University of Michigan Press
Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.8 This book evaluates her
role as a healing balm intended to reconcile a shattered nation.
In another excellent analysis of the mammy’s role in visual culture,
“Mammy the Huckster,” JoAnn Morgan explains, “Not only did Mammy
and scores like her promote consumer goods but more importantly, they
sold the public a bill of goods about the old south.”9 In addition to serving
as a symbol of reconciliation and redemption, the mammy became a “requisite fantasy for any southerner seeking to establish his or her pedigree” (96).
By extension, one of the ways to interpret the body of the mammy ‹gure is
to consider how it has been used to reify racial purity for white southerners.
Like the one drop of “black dope”—the chemical that makes Liberty white
paint “whiter than white” (the company motto is “Keep America Pure with
Liberty Paints”) in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the mammy body produced the milk that made white southerners more purely white and therefore
more genteel than their less af›uent counterparts.10 The existing analyses of
the mammy, however, don’t focus explicitly on her maternity.
The image of a large, dark, powerful body with a small, white vulnerable
one was enormously appealing, ‹rst in the South, and later on a national
level. Figure 5 is a reproduction of an imprint that appeared on decorative
envelopes during the Civil War. An African American woman’s exposed
breast served as a “return address” for the U.S. Postal Service. Her body is
arranged to hold an enormous white baby as a sarcastic reminder that the
South has grown fat on slave labor and owes its wealth to African Americans.
Consider as well a quotation from Isabel Drysdale’s popular book Scenes
in Georgia (1827): “Perhaps a more interesting picture is seldom seen, than
that which was often exhibited by Aunt Chloe and her little nursling, its fair
face pillowed in her faithful bosom, contrasting the sable but loving countenance bent above it.”11 By placing an aesthetic value on the image of a
dark-skinned woman holding a white child, the author makes Aunt Chloe’s
slave status more innocuous and benign. She hardly seems to be describing
a slave at all but rather a dark-skinned Madonna, holding a Sacred Child to
her breast. Aunt Chloe offers a classic image of the mammy stereotype, but
the standard type re›ects speci‹c characteristics.
Drawing Boundaries: Mapping Mammy
I de‹ne the standard, most recognizable mammy character as a creative
combination of extreme behavior and exaggerated features. Mammy’s
Introduction
g 5
Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=170676
The University of Michigan Press
body is grotesquely marked by excess: she is usually extremely overweight,
very tall, broad-shouldered; her skin is nearly black. She manages to be a
jolly presence—she often sings or tells stories while she works—and a strict
disciplinarian at the same time. First as slave, then as a free woman, the
mammy is largely associated with the care of white children or depicted
with noticeable attachment to white children. Her unprecedented devotion to her white family re›ects her racial inferiority. Mammy is often both
her title and the only name she has ever been given. She may also be a cook
or personal maid to her mistress—a classic southern belle—whom she infantilizes. Her clothes are typical of a domestic: headscarf and apron, but
she is especially attracted to brightly colored, elaborately tied scarves.
Mammy speaks the ungrammatical “plantation dialect” made famous in
the 1890s by popular white southern authors like Joel Chandler Harris and
by subsequent minstrel shows.12 Her own children are usually dirty and ill
mannered, yet they serve as suitable playmates for her white charges. She is
typically depicted as impatient or brusque (sometimes even violent or abusive) with her own children, in contrast to her lavish, affectionate patience
for her white charges. Mammy wields considerable authority within the
plantation household and consequently retains a measure of dubious, unreliable respect in the slave quarters; many slaves consider her untrustworthy because she allegedly identi‹es so completely with the culture that oppresses them.
The fundamental elements of the standard mammy fall into two categories: appearance and behavior. Because her identity as a mother supplies
rich nuances that have not been adequately addressed by scholars, her maternal status constitutes a third category here. Mammy’s relationship to her
biological children is crucial to my study. I base my analysis upon the character’s relationship with both black and white children, isolating those
provocative indications that the mammy character prefers the latter. The
constants and variables in the patterns of her appearance are also examined.
Some scholars speculate that the term black mammy was developed to
draw boundaries between the various maternal ‹gures on the plantation.
One scholar writes, “She is referred to as the ‘Black Mammy,’ a name probably given to distinguish her from the real mother and also from the elderly
slave woman, ‘Mammy,’ who took care of slave children while their mothers worked in the ‹elds or in master’s home.”13 The term black mammy appears in both historic and ‹ctional accounts of plantation life, often as a
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mammy
Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=170676
The University of Michigan Press
uniquely southern term of endearment. More often it served as a generic
name for all slave women who served as a wet nurse or baby nurse for white
children. Historian Deborah Gray White writes that the mammy was the
“perfect slave for the antebellum south.”14 She became the center of white
southern perception of the perfectly organized society. The word Mammy
eventually replaced the woman’s own name; it is not unusual for white
southerners to describe her as the most in›uential force in their childhood,
and yet not know her real name. This is true of little Eva’s Mammy and
Scarlett’s Mammy, well-known literary characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and
Gone with the Wind, respectively.
In her description of the mammy prototype, the late feminist literary
critic Barbara Christian equates the earliest mammy characters with the
stereotype established later. Christian sees the mammy as “a normal part of
the Southern fabric. Enduring, strong and calm, her physical characteristics
remain the same.”15
This study corrects the assumption that the mammy we now recognize
has always been such, a static ‹gure over the decades. It is not the case that
her form, speech, and behavior remained unchanged from the ‹gure’s original incarnation. Chapter 1 traces the inconsistency in the physicality of the
earliest mammy characters; there is more heterogeneity in the mammy
characters in antebellum plantation ‹ction than in those that appear after
Uncle Tom’s Cabin. My method of literary archaeology begins with close
readings of both abolitionist and proslavery ‹ction and plantation memoirs that re›ect genuine efforts to convey individual differences in African
American women’s appearances. In fact, not one of the mammy characters
is described as large or overweight before the publication of Uncle Tom’s
Cabin in 1852.
The complexity of the mammy image goes unappreciated by scholars
who for the past two decades have focused on uncovering more obscure
representations of African American women. As a result, the implications
of this stereotype’s in›uence as the most widely recognized symbol of
African American maternity have been overlooked. Few scholars separate
the mammy from the long list of stereotypical images that developed in the
nineteenth century, and as a result, much of the criticism is as reductive as
the type itself. Most previous attempts to deconstruct the contented
mammy have focused on her role as loyal servant, rather than her dual role
as surrogate and biological mother, and leading scholars have made exceptional contributions with these examinations of the controlling image of
Introduction
g 7
Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=170676
The University of Michigan Press
the faithful, obedient domestic servant. Unlike other plantation characters, the mammy is distinguished by her maternal role for both enslaved and
slave-holding families.16 In these characterizations her devotion for the
children she cares for is best illustrated by her disregard for her own children. African Americans have historically dismissed such stereotypes as
racist propaganda; the mammy ‹gure was so painful that it warranted a
continuum of ‹erce opposition. Counterefforts to return this mother to
her own family are sporadic but have not died out in African American literature, art, and material culture. My aim here is to rede‹ne the mammy’s
signi‹cance by exploring her maternity more fully through several kinds of
creative expression, and by detailing the insights to which this innovative
emphasis on maternity lends itself.
This study engages questions that demand a reconceptualization of the
mammy as a quintessential interdisciplinary topic. How do we begin to develop new theories about this pervasive image that will push us toward a
greater understanding of the intersectionality of race and gender?
Rethinking slavery and motherhood as institutions deeply in›uenced
by patriarchy, we shift our understanding of how the mammy’s role was
both experienced and imagined in nineteenth-century American culture.
For example, because of widespread theories of nineteenth-century racial
essentialism, African American women were thought to be innately superior in their abilities as caretakers of white children. As late as 1924, a retrospective study of southern plantation life insisted: “T …
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