Images people once thought of as funny and humorous are now thought to be very hurtful and racial. Over eighty years ago, The Mammy was thought to be one of the most enduring images of the African-American woman. The Mammy grew out of slavery and the location of black women in the entanglement of social relations in a biracial slave society. The boundaries have been defined of the acceptable and unacceptable black female behavior.
However, since time has elapsed the image of the Mammy has turned into a very negative one. It has become a difference of whites and blacks, for blacks it is apart of who they are and where they have come from and for the whites it is an image that is used in entertainment productions. The Mammy has a very unique physical appearance, has justified the racist economic system and has become an important staple of literature and television. Is she a simple depiction of an African American housekeeper or is she a racist stereotype perpetuated throughout popular culture from the times of slavery? First, the Mammy image is one that will never be forgotten. Her physical presence suggests bodily strength and power, evidenced by her ability to work hard yet show no signs of fatigue. She is usually very fat, very dark, and wears a bandanna and a beaming smile as a sign of how much she enjoys her oppressed position.
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The Mammies appearance dignifies who she is and what she represents. Developed after the World War I, the Mammy became the historical figure of the African American woman (Rhodes).
She became a symbol of “oppressive social relations based on race, gender, and class,” (Thomas).
One of the most important aspects of the Mammy figure is her submissiveness and docility.
The Mammy was a slave who posed no threat to the white family or to the power structure of slavery. She is conventionally valued for her reassuring gentleness, as an armed warrior. Along with a mop in her right hand, she holds a weapon in her left hand. She is someone who will do what she is told to do. She is very easy to be taught certain skills and will follow through to the fullest extent. She is the faithful, asexual, obedient, servant happy to serve white people and care for their children.
She could sometimes be strong-willed, domineering and bossy, but she is easily put in her place by a glance or a verbal warning. Second, the image of the Mammy justified the racist economic system that relegated black women to positions as domestic servants. She was often shown as deeply committed to the white family and especially caring of the children. The image conveniently ignored the fact that black women were denied the ability to nurture their own children either because they had to work long hours in the master’s house or because their children had been sold. Although times have changed since slavery has been abolished the idea of a slave has not. “It’s been more than 130 years since slavery officially was abolished in the United States, but visions of slavery live on for many southern women who are descended from free and enslaved people,” (Edwards).
It is the Mammy and her role in society that has continued the idea of slavery. She has dignified every black woman of a time that became a very biracial slave society. Finally, the Mammy image has been a staple of radio and television sitcoms, appearing in such shows as The Trouble with Father, Gilder sleeve, When a Girl Marries and The Beulah Show. The Beulah Show (1950-53) typified the image of the Mammy with Beulah spending time fretting over the life of her employers, the Henderson’s, and helping them overcome their problems.
... images black women were perceived as. The dark face, the big body, big lips, and the ignorant and surprised look featured on the mammies ... were divided during slavery, they continued to divide themselves after slavery because of their complexity of color. Black images of beauty were ... of the color complex one would have to begin at slavery. Europeans felt that Africans would be the ideal slaves ...
Throughout all producers and directors looking for someone to play the role of the Mammy, they do have the eye for understanding that they all have a better place. These characters also include some who have achieved a great deal in their lives, such as Oprah Winfrey. “All large, nurturing black women are ‘mammies,’ mere recapitulations of Hattie McDaniel and Beulah. This type includes even Oprah Winfrey, whose inspiring success is thereby rendered suspect,” (Bogle).
Seen in television and radio, the Mammy character is well described in this description of the first television show in which she appeared, The Beulah Show.
“The television version of Beulah, by contrast, was a glum and sodden affair, even for television of that era. The black character who had been largely at the center of the action in the radio show now took second place to the anodyne comings and goings of the white family for whom Beulah worked, which was even more disturbing considering that the family managed to out-Wonder Bread even the stock families that were then the rule in the sitcoms. Today Beulah’s sidelining is especially hard to watch for its implication that these automatons are more interesting than she. The show went through no fewer than three (large) black actresses in the lead role: Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel, and Louise Beavers. Beavers, who played the role the longest, could barely conceal her lack of interest, walking through it as if she were in a children’s play (which she was), and eventually leaving the role because she was tired of it. Having gone through all three of the leading black mammies in Hollywood, the producers simply folded up shop,” (Bogle).
In all of these shows the Mammy image was used as an ‘ideal type’ of good black female behavior. The inverse of this image is the bad black female, termed the ‘Jezebel’ or ‘whore.’ This image also clearly has its roots in slavery, where white men used it to legitimize the rape of black women. In addition, it was also a way of justifying the use of these women as breeders, since the white society could point to their excessive appetite for sex as the reason they had so many children. The image of black women as sexually insatiable served a similar function to the Mammy image in that it defined black women as outside of the ‘feminine,’ thus providing strict guidelines to white women regarding the nature of ‘correct’ female behavior. This control of white women’s sexuality has an important economic function in a system based on private property since it provides some assurance to the husband that the children who stand to inherit his property are indeed his. The Mammy’s status as a mythical character in American culture is achieved on three significant levels.
... sexual stereotypes. Kagan & Segal state that on television, women cook, clean, care for children and try to look ... confirm that positive behaviour can be learnt through television and that television can have positive influences on children’s ... . These studies are correlational, and Huesmann concluded that television violence was associated with aggressive behaviour. According to Kagan ...
First, her physical appearance dignifies who she is and what she represents. She is usually a very fat, dark skinned woman who represented to ideal black woman of slavery times. Second, she has justified the racist economic system as her role as a servant. The Mammy became a dignified woman for her role as a house servant. Finally, she has been seen and controlled through radio and television in today’s society.
Seen in such roles as The Beulah Show, she was played by such women that others would pay attention to. Throughout time the Mammy has become both a representation of an African American housekeeper and a racist stereotype. The Mammy, a power to be reckoned with as well as a figure to respect. Works Cited Bogle, Donald. “Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America.” Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television 05 March 2001: 520. e Library.
College of the Canyons Library, Santa Clarita, CA. 16 April 2002 Edwards, Bob and Joshua Less. Southern Women and Memories of Slavery, Part One. Morning Edition 28 December 1998. e Library. College of the Canyons Library, Santa Clarita, CA.
16 April 2002 Rhodes, Chip. Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.” The Journal of American History 15 December 2000. Proquest. College of the Canyons Library, Santa Clarita, CA. 16 April 2002 Thomas, Sabrina Lynette. “Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.” Transforming Anthropology 15 December 2001.
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Proquest. College of the Canyons Library, Santa Clarita, CA. 16 April 2002.