Recently, while binge-watching “A Different World,” I came across an episode which had a particular impact. The sitcom, a spin-off of The Cosby Show, A Different World, takes a look into the lives of a group of college students at the fictional HBC, Hillman College. In the episode, Whitley Gilbert chose pieces of artwork to include in an art show, one in particular caused a heated debate between the girls in the dorm. The selection was a statue of a mammy.
While Kim Reese, along with others, found the figurine to be offensive, Kim in particular didn’t like the statue because it reminded her of herself—darker skin and a fuller figure. Whitley believed that it was a part of black history and an aspect that should be honored as part of history. These two ideas present opposing sides of the discussion of black images in American culture. Should they be honored or rejected?
Mammies were slaves in the Antebellum South. Historically, mammies were maids in the master’s home who would help take care of the master’s children. In a sense they were the mother figures to the children, like nannies, but they couldn’t quit and were still subjected to the slave master’s cruelty. In media and propaganda, they were used to promote the false idea that black people were content with their slavery. Instead of being shown the realities of slavery and true mammies, the image of a content and chubby maternal figure was shown in advertisements, movies, etc.
This is similar to how slaves in general were portrayed—content and naive about their situation and the real world, as well as eager to please their masters. These are your Uncle Toms. Once emancipation had solidified, Mammies became largely fictional (although it was still a common practice to employ black women to take care of white children) as further propaganda supporting that slavery was a happy practice. After the Civil War ended the idea was that soldiers and everyone allied with the South would simply be able to go back home and basically forget the whole thing ever happened. While economically the South did suffer from the Civil War, their ideals were not necessarily challenged as the war was started in order to keep the United States intact.
Slavery did play a large part of the war but it was more treated as an institution by the government rather than a human rights issue. While the institution of slavery was dismantled, the racist attitudes in the South were still intact. Blacks were still thought of as second class citizens, and were expected to be fine with it. Stereotypes of black people were everywhere and rarely challenged because that was just what everyone thought of black people in the South. Racist caricatures of black people were depicted everywhere- movies, plays, advertisements, minstrel shows, etc. It was the norm.
Because of the few opportunities for blacks, especially outside of all black communities, many blacks had to participate and play into these stereotypes in order to survive. Black people who went against the status quo were often killed. In the movie industry, Black servants and mammies were often the only roles for black actors. Hattie McDaniel was famous for her portrayal of various mammies, and won an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, and was the first black actor to win an Academy Award.
Mammies are an undeniable archetype in American culture, and a part of black American history. Whitley’s argues it is a part of our history. The mammy was a symbol of black motherhood. It was just another way that black hands built the U.S.- by raising many of it’s children. Yet, Mammies are a false image. Slaves were not happy with their enslavement or being forced to raise other people’s children instead of their own.
The image of black people being complacent and accepting of slavery is false. Yes, mammies are a part of history, but they are not meant to be celebrated. Mammies are not images which black people have proclaimed for themselves. Rather, they are another mode of white supremacy.Yet, like it or not, Mammies are a part of African American and American culture. They are in our movies, on our TVs, and even being poured on top of our pancakes.
Is this really the image of blackness that we want to be put out in the world? Our history is not something to shy away from, but some things should just remain in the past. Mammies are false idols. In no way are they positive images. They were never meant to be. In other worlds we should honor Hattie McDaniel, not Mammy.