Racist Caricature of the Day: The Mammy

Content Note:  The subject matter in this post contains images, words, and phrases of a racist nature, some of which may be graphic.

Those of African descent have long been ‘othered’…treated as if they aren’t part of the human race…treated as subhuman…or only part human; certainly not deserving of the same rights as everyone else (often read as white people). This othering has resulted in racist caricatures of Blacks. These denigrating caricatures treat Black people in a dehumanizing manner. One such racist caricature is ‘The Mammy’:

From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks — in this case, black women — were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.

This was the mammy caricature, and, like all caricatures, it contained a little truth surrounded by a larger lie. The caricature portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white “family,” but often treated her own family with disdain. Although she had children, sometimes many, she was completely desexualized. She “belonged” to the white family, though it was rarely stated. Unlike Sambo, she was a faithful worker. She had no black friends; the white family was her entire world. Obviously, the mammy caricature was more myth than accurate portrayal.

Catherine Clinton (1982), a historian, claimed that real antebellum mammies were rare:

Records do acknowledge the presence of female slaves who served as the “right hand” of plantation mistresses. Yet documents from the planter class during the first fifty years following the American Revolution reveal only a handful of such examples. 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. The Mammy was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between black women and white men within slave society in response to the antislavery attack from the North during the ante-bellum period. In the primary records from before the Civil War, hard evidence for its existence simply does not appear.(pp. 201-202)

According to Patricia Turner (1994), Professor of African American and African Studies, before the Civil War only very wealthy whites could afford the luxury of “utilizing the (black) women as house servants rather than as field hands” (p. 44). Moreover, Turner claims that house servants were usually mixed raced, skinny (blacks were not given much food), and young (fewer than 10 percent of black women lived beyond fifty years). Why were the fictional mammies so different from their real-life counterparts? The answer lies squarely within the complex sexual relations between blacks and whites.

Abolitionists claimed that one of the many brutal aspects of slavery was that slave owners sexually exploited their female slaves, especially light-skinned ones who approximated the mainstream definition of female sexual attractiveness. The mammy caricature was deliberately constructed to suggest ugliness. Mammy was portrayed as dark-skinned, often pitch black, in a society that regarded black skin as ugly, tainted. She was obese, sometimes morbidly overweight. Moreover, she was often portrayed as old, or at least middle-aged. The attempt was to desexualize mammy. The implicit assumption was this: No reasonable white man would choose a fat, elderly black woman instead of the idealized white woman. The black mammy was portrayed as lacking all sexual and sensual qualities. The de-eroticism of mammy meant that the white wife — and by extension, the white family, was safe.

The sexual exploitation of black women by white men was unfortunately common during the antebellum period, and this was true irrespective of the economic relationship involved; in other words, black women were sexually exploited by rich whites, middle class whites, and poor whites. Sexual relations between blacks and whites — whether consensual or rapes — were taboo; yet they occurred often. All black women and girls, regardless of their physical appearances, were vulnerable to being sexually assaulted by white men. The mammy caricature tells many lies; in this case, the lie is that white men did not find black women sexually desirable.

The mammy caricature implied that black women were only fit to be domestic workers; thus, the stereotype became a rationalization for economic discrimination. During the Jim Crow period, approximately 1877 to 1966, America’s race-based, race-segregated job economy limited most blacks to menial, low paying, low status jobs. Black women found themselves forced into one job category, house servant. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987), a biographer of the Civil Rights Movement, described the limited opportunities for black women in the 1950s:

Jobs for clerks in dimestores, cashiers in markets, and telephone operators were numerous, but were not open to black women. A fifty-dollar-a-week worker could employ a black domestic to clean her home, cook the food, wash and iron clothes, and nurse the baby for as little as twenty dollars per week. (p. 107)

During slavery only the very wealthy could afford to “purchase” black women and use them as “house servants,” but during Jim Crow even middle class white women could hire black domestic workers. These black women were not mammies. Mammy was “black, fat with huge breasts, and head covered with a kerchief to hide her nappy hair, strong, kind, loyal, sexless, religious and superstitious” (Christian, 1980, pp. 11-12). She spoke bastardized English; she did not care about her appearance. She was politically safe. She was culturally safe. She was, of course, a figment of the white imagination, a nostalgic yearning for a reality that never had been. The real-life black domestics of the Jim Crow era were poor women denied other opportunities. They performed many of the duties of the fictional mammies, but, unlike the caricature, they were dedicated to their own families, and often resentful of their lowly societal status.

(the full article, by Dr. David Pilgrim, including a discussion of one of the most famous examples of the mammy caricature of all time-Aunt Jemima-can be found here)

Racist Caricature of the Day: The Mammy