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 blacks from the 1920s through 1950s, was typecast as a servant. She was often criticized by Blacks 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.”