Tuesday in Mooseville – Why White Folk Understanding the Racist Mammy Archetype Matters 5/14/19

Please, Mammy (1899)
Over the weekend, a Bill Maher-initiated hashtag on Twitter caught fire amongst too many on the Left. It was a play on a racist slur used by 45* against Sen. Warren, and far too many failed to realize that playing with the words of a racist slur was not clever, but an extension and reiteration of the essential racism. For once, I found myself in the position of understanding how unacceptable the hashtag was without having it spelled out to me, but as I saw white person after white person repeating the hashtag (and often arguing with those who asked that they stop), it was an object lesson in privilege trumping good politics, good citizenship, and good sense. I also realized that a fair number of tweeters stopped using the hashtag when asked without really understanding the layers and nuances of why the hashtag was offensive. That’s another privilege that comes with Whiteness, but it’s in understanding subtleties that White folk can learn to be better allies. For this post, I’m going to look not just at a stereotype that few would have trouble recognizing as racist, but at some of the underlying assumptions that are less recognized but no less harmful.
Of all the stereotypes of Black women–Jezebel, Sapphire–the best-known is Mammy. Whether one visualizes Aunt Jemima or Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, saying “Mammy” prompts an instant visual and a common cultural understanding in white America. In 1938, Jessie W. Parkhurst wrote a journal article about the role of the Black mammy, and the description he provides is the essence of the stereotype even today.

The qualities and characteristics attributed to the “Black Mammy” indicate a first hand and personal knowledge of her, which became standardized and institutionalized by sentiment. The following are examples of the traits which were generally denied to slave women as a group but which were attributed to her. She was considered self-respecting, independent, loyal, forward, gentle, captious, affectionate, true, strong, just, warm-hearted, compassionate-hearted, fearless, popular, brave, good, pious, quick-witted, capable, thrifty, proud, regal, courageous, superior, skillful, tender, queenly, dignified, neat, quick, tender, competent, possessed with a temper, trustworthy, faithful, patient, tyrannical, sensible, discreet, efficient, careful, harsh, devoted, truthful, neither apish nor servile. (The Role of the Black Mammy in the Plantation Household)

While most White folk today recognize that the Mammy archetype is racist, most of us haven’t considered how or why it’s racist beyond the shallow take that the caricature demeans Black women by its lack of depth or dimension. In fact, the white experience of Mammy is often more positive than negative; Mammy has many admirable qualities, and it seems almost unkind or unfair to declare the trope racist, as if in so doing, one is negating the “good” qualities of a mammy figure. The white experience declares, whether during slavery or post-Emancipation, that Mammy helped raise the children as if they were her own, kept the household running, and became the advisor and confidant for the entire family.

And of course, it’s all bullshit.

Start with a basic statistic for enslaved women: according to Patricia Hill Collins in her 1990 book, Black Feminist Thought, the life expectancy of enslaved women was 33.6 years; the probability of the widespread existence of grandmotherly mammies across the South is slim. In the post-Reconstruction South, however, a romantic, idealized view of the Old South was perpetuated.

The Old South was a nearly perfect land, “studded with magnolias,” filled with sprawling plantations, and populated by beautiful women and courtly gentlemen, whites who led lives of leisure. The work that had to be done was performed by black slaves, who were “lovable, amusing and devoted.”

…The mammy was a key ingredient in the Old South fable because of her role among its happy, devoted slaves. As the servant and biological opposite of the delicate, pure, ultrafeminine southern woman of the Old South, the large, strong, sexless mammy provided a needed contrast. (Manring, M.M., Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 22-23)

Mammy didn’t just exist to enable Southern womanhood to flourish; she also existed as the insidious counterpoint to the Black Jezebel. The Jezebel was the untamed, wild, lascivious Black woman; the woman who tempted the White man and in her licentiousness, was eager to bear mixed race children with no regard for the white man who thus contaminated his race. Mammy, on the other hand, was the Black woman under white control: moral, upright, and willing to place the needs of the white family even above the needs of her own family. Mammy was a woman that not only knew her place, but knew that she was a better person as a direct result. Her servitude and service were for her own good.

With a mammy’s role equated to a moral good, White folk are suddenly blameless. Slaveholders aren’t perpetuating an evil system; they’re enabling an otherwise lesser being to reach a new and greater potential. White supremacy isn’t stripping a Black woman of her individuality and personhood; it’s providing a path for self-improvement. White patriarchy isn’t limiting her self-expression; it’s enabling her to act as madonna, manager, and mentor. White guilt is assuaged.

Bree Newsome Bass argues quite effectively that this unjustified erasure of white guilt, this Mammy as magical Negro, is racist precisely because of its centering of Whiteness to the exclusion of Blackness…and Black survival.

Remain vigilant indeed.

About DoReMI 165 Articles
Now a Michigander, by way of Ohio, Illinois, Scotland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. Gardener. Sewer. Democrat. Resister.


  1. Interesting and timely! Thanks, DoReMI. As usual, your post makes us thinks of the stereotypes we’ve absorbed all our lives and given us leave to examine and reject them.

    Well done!

  2. {{{DoReMI}}} – the “Mammy” was easy for me to believe in. My mother worked even when I was little and a bunch of my raising pre-school and early elementary was done by/with the help of our Black “maid”. To me she was just another adult – someone who fixed my lunch, helped me get dressed, and was to be obeyed as if she were my mother. I loved her dearly. It really rocked my emotional foundation when, sometime in my late 50s I realized she probably didn’t love me. That I was just a charge to her. Make sure I was OK was her job, not something she wanted to do that she also got paid for. One more hard truth for a white person to deal with. To my shame I have no idea what her last name was. But since I called some of my friends’ mothers by their first names I didn’t know it was an issue.

    When I was in my 40s – my own kids out of my house, Momma gone – I started working on it. Not that I hadn’t always had some knowledge thanks to Momma. And done some seeking as the cognitive dissonance between the prettied-up White mythology and reality got louder and louder. I remember in my late 20s, after reading one of those “slaves were part of the family” books asking a Black friend “wasn’t any of it ever true?” Bless the woman, she didn’t unload on me. But she very firmly and sharply said, “No. None of it.” Same tone of voice our “maid” had used when telling me never to use the n-word again (I’d heard it from a neighbor and come in to ask her what it meant) so I knew this was serious even if I didn’t fully understand why. I’m still working on it. But I’ve at least gotten the concept of “stereotypes = less than human” to fit in with the “less than human is always wrong” that Momma (and Eddie May) taught me when I was a kid.

    Thank you for the work and the insight. As with Dee’s and Aji’s writings, you help bring things that were fuzzy into focus. moar {{{HUGS}}}

    • Dee has written about how one of her slave ancestors probably/certainly (I don’t remember details) was responsible for the death of the master through poisoning. Even though I don’t remember the details, I remember my reaction was actually one of relief. I was starting to fall victim to my own overcompensation for years of “nice” racism and creating a magical negro/noble savage type of understanding of race. Dee’s story was like a slap in the face and helped me to start over. It was also about that same time that I reread something (good grief, my memory stinks sometimes!) by Baldwin, and his bluntness coupled with Dee’s was a much-needed course correction. Whiteness allows us to believe in the Mask, but it’s not the sort of belief that brings us closer to the truth.

      • Yeah – pendulum swings. The extreme end – of either end – is a mask, a myth. That all stereotypes are demeaning is one of those vague things out there I didn’t see clearly until Aji pointed it. After some political cartoon hit that as far as content, OK – it showed Natives as the good guys, but the stereotypes were still Hollywood/demeaning/lessening. I don’t know if there is a way to show differences in a way that isn’t racist – but stereotypes aren’t it.

        There are many times when I dive into fantasy as a relief from the real world. But I want to live in the real world. So I have to know which is which.

      • She got rid of two owners – using poison. The third lived – he didn’t treat her poorly. She was a healer, midwife, herbalist.

    • Thanks, Dee. I’m glad I clicked on the link, which provides access not just to more information about the book, but to the full painting on the cover. What’s not showing in the thumbnail here is what makes the painting so poignant and painful.

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