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A mammy is a Southern United States archetype for a black woman who worked as a nanny, often for a white family nursing the family's children. The word "mammie" is a variant on the word "mother", and means "mommy" in Dutch.
One of the earliest fictionalized versions of the mammy figure was Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was first published in 1852. As the mammy figure progressed into the 20th century, the persona was sacrificed to the demands of the white majority, who widely mythologized the figure. Memoirs that describe the roles of mammies from the 1890s to the 1920s downplayed the mammy's relationship with her family.
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 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.
Roles in plantation households
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 etiquette 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, the 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 waitresses.
The "Mammy" character is used in many films, novels and video games, including:
- Mammy as played by Jennie Lee in D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation.
- Aunt Chloe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852
- Aunt Jemima, portrayed by freed slave, Nancy Green, 1893-1923. Following Nancy Green are a long line of Aunt Jemimas, including: Anna Robinson (1923-1951), Edith Wilson (1948-1966), Ethel Ernestine Harper (the 1950s)
- Mammy, played by Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind, 1939
- Mammy Two Shoes, Tom and Jerry series
- Louise Beavers played a mammy, cook, slave, or servant in almost all of her film roles. The more well known are: Belle Starr (1941), Jack London (1943), Imitation of Life (1934), I Dream of Jeanie (1952) and Holiday Inn (1942)
- Calpurnia, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960
- Delilah, played by Virginia Capers, Big Jake, 1971
- Louise, played by Margo Moorer, Forrest Gump, 1994
- Ma Soupswill, Rare Ltd., Grabbed by the Ghoulies, 2003
- Aunt Lou, played by Cleo King, season three of the Deadwood TV series, 2006
- Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis, The Help, 2011
- Minny Jackson, played by Octavia Spencer, The Help, 2011
- Constantine Jefferson, played by Cicely Tyson, The Help, 2011
- Bernstein, Robin, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 157, 174-176, 180-181.
- Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum, 1973/1994), 57.
- Camacho, Roseanne V., "Race, Region, and Gender in a Reassessment of Lillian Smith." Southern Women: Histories and Identities. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. p. 168.
- Clinton, Catherine, The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 201-202.
- Jewel, K Sue, From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of US Social Policy, 1993.
- Parkhurst, Jessie W., The Role of the Black Mammy in the Plantation Household, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 23, No. 3
- Smith, Lillian, Killers of the Dream. New York: W.W. Norton, 1949. p. 123-4.
- Thurber, Cheryl, "The Development of the Mammy Image and Mythology." Southern Women: Histories and Identities, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. p. 96.
- Turner, Patricia A., Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 44.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mammies.|
- Pilgrim, David. "The Mammy Caricature". Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University, Michigan.
- Mammy Dearest: African-American House Servants in Birth of the Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Song of the South American Studies at the University of Virginia
- Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly (June 15, 2009). "Southern Memory, Southern Monuments, and the Subversive Black Mammy". Southern Spaces.