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The Mammy Caricature

Mammy Images and Movies
Mammy Images and Movies

Mammy is the most well known and enduring racial caricature of African American women. The Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University has more than 100 items with the mammy image, including ashtrays, souvenirs, postcards, fishing lures, detergent, artistic prints, toys, candles, and kitchenware. This article examines real mammies, fictional mammies, and commercial mammies.

Real Mammies

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 black people -- in this case, black women -- were contented, even happy, at being enslaved. 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 enslaved females 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 the enslavement 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 white people 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 (black people 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 black and white people.

Abolitionists claimed that one of the many brutal aspects of slavery was that slave owners sexually exploited their enslaved females, 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 white people, middle class white people, and poor white people. Sexual relations between black and white people -- 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 black people 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.

Fictional Mammies

Hattie McDaniel

The slavery-era mammy did not want to be free. She was too busy serving as surrogate mother/grandmother to white families. Mammy was so loyal to her white family that she was often willing to risk her life to defend them. In D. W. Griffith's movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) -- based on Thomas Dixon's racist novel The Clansman (1905) -- the mammy defends her white master's home against black and white Union soldiers. The message was clear: Mammy would rather fight than be free. In the famous movie Gone With The Wind (Selznick & Fleming, 1939), the black mammy also fights black soldiers whom she believes to be a threat to the white mistress of the house.

Mammy found life on vaudeville stages, in novels, in plays, and finally, in films and on television. White men, wearing black face makeup, did vaudeville skits as Sambos, Mammies, and other anti-black stereotypes. The standard for mammy depictions was offered by Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book's mammy, Aunt Chloe, is described in this way:

A round, black, shiny face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with the whites of eggs, like one of her own tea rusks. Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment from under a well-starched checkered turban, bearing on it; however, if we must confess it, a little of that tinge of self-consciousness which becomes the first cook of the neighborhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be.(Stowe, 1966, p. 31)

Imitation of Life poster

Aunt Chloe was nurturing and protective of "her" white family, but less caring toward her own children. She is the prototypical fictional mammy: self-sacrificing, white-identified, fat, asexual, good-humored, a loyal cook, housekeeper and quasi-family member.

During the first half of the 1900s, while black Americans were demanding political, social, and economic advancement, Mammy was increasingly popular in the field of entertainment. The first talking movie was 1927's The Jazz Singer (Crosland) with Al Jolson in blackface singing "Mammy." In 1934 the movie Imitation of Life (Laemmle & Stahl) told the story of a black maid, Aunt Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) who inherited a pancake recipe. This movie mammy gave the valuable recipe to Miss Bea, her boss. Miss Bea successfully marketed the recipe. She offered Aunt Delilah a twenty percent interest in the pancake company.

"You'll have your own car. Your own house," Miss Bea tells Aunt Delilah. Mammy is frightened. "My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss Bea? I can't live with you? Oh, Honey Chile, please don't send me away." Aunt Delilah, though she had lived her entire life in poverty, does not want her own house. "How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie (Miss Bea's daughter) if I ain't here... I'se your cook. And I want to stay your cook." Regarding the pancake recipe, Aunt Delilah said, "I gives it to you, Honey. I makes you a present of it" (Bogle, 1994, p. 57). Aunt Delilah worked to keep the white family stable, but her own family disintegrated -- her self-hating daughter rejected her, then ran away from home to "pass for white." Near the movie's conclusion, Aunt Delilah dies "of a broken heart."

Imitation of Life was probably the highlight of Louise Beavers' acting career. Almost all of her characters, before and after the Aunt Delilah role, were mammy or mammy-like. She played hopelessly naive maids in Mae West's She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933), and Jean Harlow's Bombshell (Stromberg & Fleming, 1933). She played loyal servants in Made for Each Other (Selznick & Cromwell, 1939), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Frank, Panama & Potter, 1948), and several other movies.

Beavers had a weight problem: it was a constant battle for her to stay overweight. She often wore padding to give her the appearance of a mammy. Also, she had been reared in California, and she had to fabricate a southern accent. Moreover, she detested cooking. She was truly a fictional mammy.

Imitation of Life was remade (without the pancake recipe storyline) in 1959 (Hunter & Sirk). It starred Lana Turner as the white mistress, and Juanita Moore (in an Oscar-nominated Best Supporting Actress performance) as the mammy. It was also a tear-jerker.

Hattie McDaniel was another well known mammy portrayer. In her early films, for example The Golden West (Grainger & Howard, 1932), and The Story of Temple Drake (Glazer & Roberts, 1933), she played unobtrusive, weak mammies. However, her role in Judge Priest (Wurtzel & Ford, 1934) signaled the beginning of the sassy, quick-tempered mammies that she popularized. She played the saucy mammy in many movies, including, Music is Magic (Stone & Marshall, 1935), The Little Colonel (DeSylva & Butler, 1935), Alice Adams (Berman & Stevens, 1935), Saratoga (Hyman & Conway, 1937), and The Mad Miss Manton (Wolfson & Jason, 1938). In 1939, she played Scarlett O'Hara's sassy but loyal servant in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel won an Oscar for best supporting actress, the first black to win an Academy Award.

Hattie McDaniel was a gifted actress who added depth to the character of mammy; unfortunately, she, like almost all black people from the 1920s through 1950s, was typecast as a servant. She was often criticized by black people for perpetuating the mammy caricature. She responded this way: "Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one" (Bogle, 1994, p. 82).

Beulah was a television show, popular from 1950 to 1953, in which a mammy nurtures a white suburban family. Hattie McDaniel originated the role for radio; Louise Beavers performed the role on television. The Beulah image resurfaced in the 1980s when Nell Carter, a talented black singer, played a mammy-like role on the situation comedy Gimme a Break. She was dark-skinned, overweight, sassy, white-identified, and like Aunt Delilah in Imitation of Life, content to live in her white employer's home and nurture the white family.

Commercial Mammies


Mammy was born on the plantation in the imagination of slavery defenders, but she grew in popularity during the period of Jim Crow. The mainstreaming of Mammy was primarily, but not exclusively, the result of the fledging advertising industry. The mammy image was used to sell almost any household item, especially breakfast foods, detergents, planters, ashtrays, sewing accessories, and beverages. As early as 1875, Aunt Sally, a Mammy image, appeared on cans of baking powder. Later, different Mammy images appeared on Luzianne coffee and cleaners, Fun to Wash detergent, Aunt Dinah molasses, and other products. Mammy represented wholesomeness. You can trust the mammy pitchwoman.

Mammy's most successful commercial expression was (and is) Aunt Jemima. In 1889, Charles Rutt, a Missouri newspaper editor, and Charles G. Underwood, a mill owner, developed the idea of a self-rising flour that only needed water. He called it Aunt Jemima's recipe. Rutt borrowed the Aunt Jemima name from a popular vaudeville song that he had heard performed by a team of minstrel performers. The minstrels included a skit with a southern mammy. Rutt decided to use the name and the image of the mammy-like Aunt Jemima to promote his new pancake mix. Unfortunately for him, he and his partner lacked the necessary capital to effectively promote and market the product. They sold the pancake recipe and the accompanying Aunt Jemima marketing idea to the R.T. Davis Mill Company.

Aunt Jemima display

The R.T. Davis Company improved the pancake formula, and, more importantly, they developed an advertising plan to use a real person to portray Aunt Jemima. The woman they found to serve as the live model was Nancy Green, who was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1834. She impersonated Aunt Jemima until her death in 1923. Struggling with profits, R.T. Davis Company made the bold decision to risk their entire fortune and future on a promotional exhibition at the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago. The Company constructed the world's largest flour barrel, 24 feet high and 12 feet across. Standing near the basket, Nancy Green, dressed as Aunt Jemima, sang songs, cooked pancakes, and told stories about the Old South -- stories which presented the South as a happy place for black and white people alike. She was a huge success. She had served tens of thousands of pancakes by the time the fair ended. Her success established her as a national celebrity. Her image was plastered on billboards nationwide, with the caption, "I'se in town, honey." Green, in her role as Aunt Jemima, made appearances at countless country fairs, flea markets, food shows, and local grocery stores. By the turn of the century, Aunt Jemima, along with the Armour meat chef, were the two commercial symbols most trusted by American housewives (Sacharow, 1982, p. 82). By 1910 more than 120 million Aunt Jemima breakfasts were being served annually. The popularity of Aunt Jemima inspired many giveaway and mail-in premiums, including, dolls, breakfast club pins, dishware, and recipe booklets.

The R.T. Davis Mill Company was renamed the Aunt Jemima Mills Company in 1914, and eventually sold to the Quaker Oats Company in 1926. In 1933 Anna Robinson, who weighed 350 pounds, became the second Aunt Jemima. She was much heavier and darker in complexion than was Nancy Green. The third Aunt Jemima was Edith Wilson, who is known primarily for playing the role of Aunt Jemima on radio and television shows between 1948 and 1966. By the 1960s the Quaker Oats Company was the market leader in the frozen food business, and Aunt Jemima was an American icon. In recent years, Aunt Jemima has been given a makeover: her skin is lighter and the handkerchief has been removed from her head. She now has the appearance of an attractive maid -- not a Jim Crow era mammy.

© Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology
Ferris State University
Oct., 2000
Edited 2024


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