Mammy: Her Life and Times

(from American Heritage)

by Phil Patton

On Highway 61 outside of Natchez, Mississippi, stands Mammy's Cupboard, a thirty foot high concrete figure of a black woman. For years she was a landmark, staring with electrified lights beneath a pillbox cap, wearing earrings made of horseshoes and holding a tray. Beneath Mammy's red brick skirts, punched with arched windows, Mrs. Henry Gaude for years operated a small restaurant, its dining room supported inside with cypress beams recovered from a cotton gin house. Mrs. Gaude catered to tourists drawn by Natchez Pilgrimage of Homes--a annual tour of the town's grand old houses and an effective celebration of the plantation myth. Edward Weston photographed the place in 1941, white washed with cylindrical shell pumps. Later, the familiar round blue sign of the old Bell system stands at the door and out front are three Shell gasoline pumps, one white, one yellow and one sky blue.

Mammy's Cupboard is an informal monument to one of the most problematic and profound icons of American culture: Mammy. She is a character as powerfully imprinted as the English nanny, a psychological, social, commercial and racist stereotype who looms large in the American commedia dell'arte of legend and literature. Southern earth mother, source of nutrition, wisdom, comfort and discipline, cook, advisor, mediator, In such personifications as theater's Ma Rainey and TV's Beulah, in literature and film, she remains in myth and memory, the most positive and yet most dangerous of all racist stereotypes. Sambo is no longer acceptable, but Aunt Jemima remains on the pancake mix box, repeatedly updated, a shiny happy face.

The strangest turn in Mammy's biography, however, is that she should be so much in demand today, when the enforcers of political correctness patrol our culture and a rising tide of scholarly and popular interest in heroic black women from Harriet Tubman to Marian Wright Edelman has swept the country. While bookstores are full of reissues of Sojourner Truth and Zora Neale Hurston, collectors of Mammy cookie jars, postcards and packaging have become more numerous and more fervent. (See sidebar) Odder still is that the two groups overlap.

As Aunt Jemima, her most cartoonlike incarnation, Mammy stands with Sambo, Uncle Tom and Uncle Ben, the tom the coon, the pickaninny and the golliwog. As a commercial character, she was close kin to the Cream of Wheat chef, the Gold Dust Twins and Hambone. Food and cleaning products were the chief ones to use black stereotypes: these were subjects, it was implied, about which blacks knew better than whites.

But Mammy was more complicated. All sorts of feelings and ideas became associated with her stereotype. She not only fed and raised white children, but often mediated between whites and blacks. "Miss Scarlett, I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies," was the classic line of Butterfly McQueen as Prissy in Gone with the Wind, but Hattie McDaniel as Mammy did know midwifing and child raising and much more.

Nurturing and protective, self sacrificing, long suffering, wise, often world weary but never bitter, Mammy mixed kindness with sternness and wreathed her own identity inside the weight of heartiness, her own sexuality inside her role as surrogate mother, teacher and cook. Her outside life--especially her love life--is almost always problematic. If she has children, they tend to be treated more brusquely than the white children in her charge. And she never escapes her sense of the limitations of being black.

While Mammy's legend was created in answer to the critics of slavery and Jim Crow, her reality was to become an ambivalent, often haunting register of the complexities of guilt and love white Americans felt.

Mammy's mythology was created, some academics argue, before the Civil War, as a Southern rebuttal to Northern charges of sexual predation on black women--she was a counterbalance to the octaroon mistress. Argues historian Catherine Clinton, "the Mammy was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between black women and white men with slave society in response to the antislavery attack from the north."

Only later did Mammy enter the public stage. One of the known minstrel singers of his day, Billy Kersands made a song called "Old Aunt Jemima" popular in the 1870's. But in America, images become characters when they get jobs in sales: Mammy as stereotype was given her most vivid visual embodiment by Aunt Jemima, who debuted a century ago in the person of Nancy Green, hired to stand atop a flour barrel at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Mammy was usually depicted as behaving more kindly to the white children in her care than to her own. In figurines and post card, she was frequently the butt of jokes and, bent over her washing, would sometimes be depicted with her tit literally caught in the wringer.

It was as a commercial icon that the stereotype of Mammy was sharpest. Customers confronted with commercial Mammies were disarmed by laughing at her caricature, but sold by her positive qualities--her asserted knowledge of food and housekeeping. In Sambo: the Rise and Fall of an American Jester, Joseph Boskin shows that it was food products made the most use of Mammy, Sambo and other black caricatures. As idealized servant types, they suggested heartiness, quality, the approval of those who really ran the kitchen, who knew food. "Always clean, ready to serve with a crisp smile, intuitively knowledgeable and distinctively southern in their spoken words, they epitomized servility with exceptionally natural cheerfulness, " writes Boskin. Mammy and her kin were images as prepackaged as the sort of products they advertised--new sorts of branded and processed products, in a world where generic flour oatmeal and rice were still the rule. As early as 1875 the Mammy like "Aunt Sally" had appeared on cans of baking powder, one of the first products to be branded. But if the Cream of Wheat chef was unabashedly touted as "the most famous nigger (later "man") in the world," it was Aunt Jemima who lasted the longest.

Jemima's story, as sketched out in Jackie Young's Mammy and Her Friends, began in 1889 when Charles Rutt, a St. Joseph, Missouri, newspaper man, got the idea of a self rising pancake mix that required only the addition of water. He took the name Aunt Jemima from a vaudeville song of the time by the well known team of Baker and Farrell. The R.T. Davis Mills in St. Joseph bought the idea--and with it the supporting story.

To give character to the logo--wide mouthed, rag headed, crudely rendered--Davis Mills invented a whole legend for Aunt Jemima. Aunt Jemima, the story went, had been a cook on the Louisiana plantation of a certain Colonel Higbee and that her reputation for fine pancakes had spread far and wide. Ads showed smiling belles and laughing older white gentlemen trying to wheedle the "secret recipe" out of the reticent--and loyal--Jemima. But somehow, the story went on, the shy Jemima had not only been persuaded to relinquish the secret to the Davis Mills but to tour the states, like a patent medicine salesman, championing its wonders from the top of a flour barrel.

Jemima premiered for a national audience at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago--the "White City" from which blacks were banned. (Frederick Douglass called it a "Whited Sepulcher.") Her popularity was immediate. She quickly acquired a family: Uncle Mose, Diana and Wade these appeared as rag dolls included in boxes of the pancake mix, then filled with paper or rags by the customer. Later, mailing in box tops or redeeming coupons would get you AJ mixing bowls, or syrup pitchers cookie jars, and salt and pepper shakers. There were cookbooks and pamphlets of her "temptilatin'" recipes.

Aunt Jemima herself traveled from town to town, cooking up pancakes. Local organizations tied into the promotions. One highly valuable collectible is a portable griddle complete with syrup and seasoning shakers all in the familiar red skirted shape of Jemima. "I'se in town honey" was a frequent slogan, which lasted for more than half a century after it was first employed in 1905.

Nancy Green died in a car accident in the early Twenties, after having been redrawn in 1917 to reflect as less cartoonish, more maternal figure. In 1925 Davis sold the Aunt Jemima brand and operation to Quaker Oats, whose gentle Penn figure was about the same age.

In the 1950's Jemima took on another new face: that of Edith Wilson, formerly a star of Amos and Andy and To Have and Have Not, who served as the touring Aunt Jemima for eighteen years. Ethel Ernestine Harper sang with the Three Ginger Snaps and appeared in The Hot Mikado with Bill Bojangles before taking the role. She died in car crash in 1973?.

Aunt Jemima was updated--made thinner and lighter--in 1968. But not until 1989 did she get her present face--a sort of Diane Carroll look, slimmer and lighter--and only after the company had carried out five months of delicate research in twelve cities. The aim, Quaker said, was to "present Aunt Jemima in a more contemporary light ( !), while preserving the important attributes of warmth, quality, good taste, heritage and reliability." Aunt Jemima at last lost her kerchief.

But Aunt Jemima was only Mammy's best known commercial identity. She also sold Luzianne Coffee and cleansers and appeared in cereal ads. Mammy graced fruit box labels and sold molasses. An assurance of concerned family style cooking she graced menus for the Old Dixie Restaurant in Los Angeles and Mammy's Cabin, outside Atlanta.

She became a figure in all sorts of kitchen and other equipment. In July 1930, one Lilly Daigre-Gore of New Orleans filed a design patent for a smoker's stand that whose tray stood atop a mammy figure's head. She would hold pot holders and grocery lists.

Mammy began in slavery--or at least in the minds of slavery's defenders. She was idealized by the defenders of slavery and then segregation as evidence of the humanity of the system.

"Up to the age of ten we saw as much, perhaps more, of the mammy than of the mother...The mammy first taught us to lisp and to walk," wrote southerner Lewis Blair in 1889 in his tract, The Prosperity of the South Dependent Upon the Elevation of the Negro. How could they be cruel to blacks, defenders of the system asked, after having been "nursed at black breasts."

But not only slavery's defenders noticed Mammy's influence on language. Linguist J.L. Dillard argues that the southern accent is at base an African American accent and Mammy its prime mode of transmission. During his travels in the United States in 1842 Charles Dickens observed that the women he encountered in the South, "speak more or less like Negroes, from having been constantly in their childhood with black nurse."

On the plantation, Mammy bore a special relationship to the Mistress. As a surrogate for mother, she grew to share many of her idealized qualities--not least because the limits to the role of white women echoed those of black women in the quarters. The southern cult of Mama, which for instance fairly drips from classic country music, often extended to Mammy.

The Old South linked women and blacks, argued William Taylor in Cavalier and Yankee from the beginning. As early as 1836, plantation fiction such as that of Beverley Tucker drew a parallel. Tucker offered a list of the qualities women and blacks held in common: "their humility, their grateful affection, their self-renouncing loyalty, their subordination of the heart."

Later literature depicted Mammy sometimes as a kind of vicar of the white mistress and sometimes her shadow sister, an extension of the ideal of slavery's defenders. As Catherine Clinton wrote in The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South, Mammy is "not merely a stereotype, but in fact a figment of the combined romantic imaginations of the contemporary southern ideologue and the modern southern historian." There are few records of Mammies who actually served, as the legend has it, as the Mistress's right hand, the administrative head of the plantation.

"Not until after emancipation did black women run white households or occupy in any significant number the special positions ascribed to them in folklore and fiction."

A complex a myth as she was, Mammy could not become a caricature until she left the plantation. The modern Mammy is a product of emancipation and industrialization. Mammy as commercial logotype was born along with Jim Crow, not on the plantation but in the cities and the railroad station and car. Black figures in packaging and advertising grew up in the 1890's, simultaneously with the arrival of full fledged Jim Crow laws in the South. This American apartheid, C.Vann Woodward showed, developed first in the north into a complex code of regulation and arrived in the South later. It reflected a more industrial and urban society, requiring more codified relationships than the traditionally enforced ones of the (by now ruined) plantation. As Jim Crow became institutionalized, so Mammy, Sambo and Golliwog became as firmly established in the firmament of entertainment and advertising as any licensed cartoon character of our own time. They were the Snoopys and Garfields of their era.

Mammy moved quickly into the new media of the twentieth century. In film, Mammy became a stock figure even before the arrival of the talkies. At last Mammy took the form of a real human being--if only an actress--and actresses brought a subtle, subversive sense of irony to the stock figure.

Mammy figured in the series of maids who played foil to Mae West and others--"Beulah, peel me a grape!" Mae cried to Hattie McDaniel in I'm No Angel. McDaniel, who also appeared as lookout and companion for Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus specialized in the funny, back talking roles, while Louise Beavers was more traditonally self-sacrificing. While McDaniel was a big woman, her weight flirting with three hundred pounds, Beavers was not. However rotound she appeared on screen, reports Donald Bogle, "it was a steady battle for her to stay overweight."

Beavers's most important Mammy role was as Aunt Delilah in Imitation of Life (1934). Delilah is a big screen shadow of Aunt Jemima. Her pancake recipe makes her employer rich, but she is not interested in wealth. In this strange and in many ways self serving vision of race as grappled with by white Hollywood--Beavers and the NAACP had to fight to have the word "nigger" deleted from the screenplay--Delilah accepts the world of racial division and her own secondary status while her light skinned daughter rejects not racial division but her race--and her mother at the same time. She attempts to "pass," breaking her mother's heart. Delilah ends up rejected and heartbroken and Mammy becomes a tragic figure.

In Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Beavers again plays a cook and maid, Gussie, who comes up with the slogan that saves the day for ad man Cary Grant: "If you ain't eating Wham, you ain't eating ham."

"Give Gussie a ten dollar raise," Mr. Blandings exclaims in his relief.

McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her performance in Gone With the Wind, probably went the furthest toward imprinting Mammy's image in popular consciousness. Even while snapping back at Miss Scarlett, her surrogate daughter, she held things together, birthed the babies, and stayed loyal even when others were fleeing slavery--an implicit justification of the system.

Ethel Waters brought extra dimensions to the Mammy stereotype on screen. If Waters in the 1949 film Pinky, Bogle assets, "spelled the death of the one sided Mammy figure," she raised Mammy to her Hollywood pinnacle in Member of the Wedding in 1952, with an implicit history of suffering annealing a heroic wisdom.

The Mammies of Southern literature, from Delta Wedding to Member of the Wedding, were more complex, more individualized characters. Faulkner's Dilsey is at the center of The Sound and the Fury. Likely inspired by his own mammy, Caroline Barr "Mammy Callie," she is hated and feared by Jason Compson, the sole sane son of the family, but is the real force holding the family together. Self denying, stern, but sentimental too, she is the existential Mammy.

In Faulkner's subsequently added thumbnails of the Sound and Fury characters, Dilsey alone remains undescribed. Even the minor black figures such as Luster get descriptions but Dilsey's name stands alone above the phrase "They endured."--as famous in Southern interpretation as "Jesus wept" in Biblical scholarship. He dedicated Go Down Moses to her: "To Mammy/Caroline Barr/Mississippi [ 1840--1940]/Who was born in slavery and who gave to my family a fidelity without stint or calculation of recompense and to my childhood an immeasurable devotion and love."

These Mammies of Southern literature are positive figures--beneficent, wise, and strong--but in large part they remain clichés, only of a new sort--redolent with folk wisdom and "natural understanding," beloved and admired but cliches nonetheless.

In Carson McCullers's A Member of the Wedding the cook Berenice, played on stage and screen by Ethel Waters, is a source of comfort and wisdom. When she spoke, we are told "on a long and serious subject, the words flowed one into the other and her voice began to sing. In the gray of the kitchen on summer afternoons the tone of her voice was golden and quiet, and you could listen to the color and the singing of her voice and not follow the words." She projected a vision of a world "that was round and just and reasonable"--a world like herself.

The comfort Mammy embodied for whites could become an object of nostalgia, lightly tinged with guilt. Peter Taylor writes of chauffeurs and cooks he knew growing up in the Memphis of the Twenties. "There was not in those days in Memphis, any time or occasion when one felt more secure and relaxed than when one had given oneself over completely to the care and protection of black servants who surrounded us and who created and sustained for the most part the luxury which distinguished the lives we lived then and the lives we live now."

For many blacks, especially in the Sixties, this sort of sentiment was as ridiculous and demeaning as any pickaninny. Black artist Joe Overstreet parodied her on canvas in 1964 with is machine gun toting "New Jemima."

For white society, some of the nostalgia swathes Mammy even today. But more often she simply continues to exist, her face present, her character unremarked. Aunt Jemima smiles on, not only in our cupboards, but in our freezers, on frozen pancakes now. And Mammy keeps showing up: from New Orleans come Aunt Sally's original Creole pralines, on whose box one finds an exotic, high cheeked variant gazing from beneath tablecloth checked scarf in worldy confidence.

Parts of the Mammy legend, however, also survive in new character--heavy, powerful, but with a new air of respect softening her stereotype. She continues to live not just on the pancake mix box, but redeemed by the addition of real humanity, on the electronic box, as a character in the world of celebrity: there is a more than a little of her in Barbara Jordan, stern, stentorian, the village corrector--in Oprah Winfrey, the village confessor, whose weight fluctuations are a constant topic of the checkout counter tabloids. Sometimes Mammy is Momma, the sacrificing, beloved mother of the first round NFL draft choice, interviewed beside the new house his bonus money has erected for her beside the old shotgun shack. But today too she is regarded in more complex ways. The components of cliché have separated and grown more individual. Mammy has become mammies--the real person, differentiated in literature and memoir, problematic A few years ago, New York Times editor Howell Raines memoir of his mammy "Grady's Gift," struck many as sentimental, others as profound, but it sketched thoughts that many former children encharged to many former Mammies have had.

Today, Mammy's Cupboard is in disrepair, looming like a mock Ozymandias over a changed landscape. Mammy's paint is peeling and and her arms have fallen off. The restaurant is closed, its drive blocked with dozens of concrete bird baths and garden elves, arrayed in a mocking dance.

Mammy the stereotype continues to cast a shadow. But more and more it is possible to imagine Mammy as a kind of chrysalis, the fat woman from whom the proverbial inner thin woman has emerged, a shell from the which the mature creature has at last emerged.

 

SIDEBAR---Collecting Mammy

As Aunt Jemima anticipates her centennial, she has shown up in what at first glance seem unlikely circumstances: as one of the heroines of the black collectibles movement, which has seen its numbers grow over the last five years to some 35,000, according to Jeannette Carson, president of the Black Ethnic Collectibles Inc., the hobby's organization, and publisher of its magazine. In iron and wood, plastic and fabric, Mammy has become highly collectible. At a recent show and sale for collectors in Washington, one could find cookie jars and pot holders in her image, advertisements and banners, even old packages of mix and meal. One vendor offered a banner for a local Kiwanis Club that had linked fundraising with Aunt Jemima's propagandizing. Price: $550.

About seventy per cent of the collectors are black and they include Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, whose mantel is lined with Mammy figurines, and other entertainment celebrities. Entire shops and galleries are devoted to the field: Black by Popular Demand, in Colorado Springs; Holt's Country Store, in Grandview, Missouri; Jemima's in Philadelphia and Coco's Nasty Boutique in Brooklyn. This is no mere fad: auction houses such as Christie's deal in the material and the stately Wadsworth Athenaeum bought the 6000 item collection of Randolph Linsly Simpson, an early white collector.

Black collectibles include such shocking items as literal slave shackles, newspaper ads offering to sell slaves, and signs bearing such legends as "White Only" or even "No Negroes, Mexicans or Dogs Allowed."

That African Americans should collect such derogatory images has gotten a lot of attention. But less noticed is that black collectors have become fascinated by all sorts of historical items, including memorabilia about black cavalrymen, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Negro Baseball Leagues, and World War I aviator Eugene Bullard. An outfit called Geographic Roots sells maps of Africa for tracing roots: "ninety per cent of the gene pool comes from 900 miles of coastline" its brochure notes.

For many at the show, as one grandmother who had brought her grandson, the purpose was simple education. "I want him to know what things used to be like," she said. But even within families, opinion is divided on this material. "My grandmother says, 'get that stuff out of the house,'" said one vendor at the expo,"but my father won't hear of it." A similar argument was the subject of a recent episode of Another World, the television series spun off from The Cosby Show.

That such history serves an important purpose was highlighted at the Washington show. Behind a curtain wall, barely protected from the buzz of the crowd, collectors could attend a series of seminars on the history and meanings of black imagery. "Racism existed in the subculture of advertising," Dr. Brenda Vemer, a collector and history professor, told her mostly black audience. "These images saturated the subconscious of America." They showed children as thieves, men as lazy or dandies, women as overweight and fat lipped. "It was debilitating," she says. "When I was a child I asked,'where do white people get their ideas about us?' This is the answer."

That Dr. Vemer and others collect such material is only partly so this history will not be forgotten: it is also so that it can be changed. Many collectors feel a kind of redemption in taking physical possession of the stereotype. Lowery Sims, curator of twentieth century art at the Metropolitan Museum and collector of black dolls and other material, has said that this sort of collecting "represents our quest in search of a sense of self."

"Reclaiming and dealing with a negative stereotype is a way of not letting it hurt you."

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