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A mammy, also spelled mammie, is a U.S. historical stereotype, originating from the South, depicting Black women who work in a white family and nurse the family’s children. The fictionalized mammy character is often visualized as a larger-sized, dark-skinned woman with a motherly personality. The origin of the mammy figure stereotype is rooted in the history of slavery in the United States. Black slave women were tasked with domestic and childcare work in white American slaveholding households. The mammy stereotype was inspired by these enslaved domestic workers but is not an accurate representation of the American slave experience.
The mammy caricature was used to create a false narrative of Black women being happy within slavery or within a role of servitude. Though there were women who worked within the domestic roles like maid or caregiver, there is no real evidence that there were women who existed within the mammy stereotype. The mammy stereotype associates Black women with domestic roles, and has played a role in limiting job opportunities for Black women.
In the early 20th century, the mammy character was common in many films. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress with her performance as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind in 1939. McDaniel’s portrayal of the mammy caricature has received scrutiny. In 1940 shortly after the win, the NAACP scrutinized McDaniel’s role and called out Hollywood for the lack of diverse Black roles and characters outside of servitude. McDaniel responded to backlash and said “Why should I complain about making $7,000 playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week actually being one.”
Some of the contemporary media portrayals of the mammy caricature have been acted out by black men (Henson, 2013). A contemporary portrayal of the mammy caricature is seen in the film Big Momma’s House directed by Raja Goswell and starring Martin Lawrence. In the movie Martin Lawrence plays an FBI agent, Malcolm Turner, who goes undercover as “Big Momma” Hattie Mae Pierce, who exhibits the stereotypical mannerisms and appearance of a mammy caricature. The character of Big Momma is a plus-size older black woman with a religious and nurturing background. The character is seen as a matriarch and a homemaker. Another mammy stereotype that the movie displays is the one of midwifery and domestic work. This originates from the history of older Black women serving as midwives on plantations.
The Help is a movie based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett about Black maids of White families in Jackson Mississippi during the 1960s. The novel and film center around the experience of Black domestic workers, influenced by the writer and director both having Black nannies growing up. The story is good from the perspective of the main character Skeeter who has also been raised by a Black nanny. During the movie, Skeeter convinces several Black maids to share their stories and grievances which causes an uproar. The movie has come under criticism for several reasons. One being that both the novel and film were written and executed by white people, this the portrayals of Black maids come from their limited perspectives. The Association of Black Historians released a statement saying, “The Help distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of Black domestic workers.” When asked about her role in the movie, Viola Davis expressed her concern with playing the role because of the stereotype. However, she argues that the mammy remains a caricature because she is never humanized in the writings or portrayals. Davis’ mother and grandmother also worked as maids so she was familiar with the experience and lives of black women within domestic work. Davis also challenged filmmakers to explore the lives of these women outside of the kitchen and to not limit their identity to just being maids. The lack of Black stories and variety of black characters were also discussed in the interview.
Other examples of the stereotype in film include:
Mammy as played by Jennie Lee in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation.
Aunt Dilsey, played by Hattie McDaniel, Judge Priest, 1934.
Louise Beavers played a mammy, cook, slave, or servant in almost all of her film roles. The more well known are: Imitation of Life (1934), Belle Starr (1941), Holiday Inn (1942), Jack London (1943) and I Dream of Jeanie (1952).
Delilah, played by Virginia Capers, Big Jake, 1971
Louise, played by Margo Moorer, Forrest Gump, 1994
Ma Soupswill, Rare, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, 2003
Aunt Tempe, played by Hattie McDaniel, in Song of the South, 1946
TelevisionLike the image of Aunt Jemima, the image of the mammy was given a contemporary makeover as well as appearing in television sitcoms. Some of the more contemporary features that the mammy received were that her head rag was removed and she became smaller, as well as lighter in complexion. In addition, her owner was not always white.
Some contemporary television sitcoms which featured mammies include Maude, where the character Florida, played by Esther Rolle, worked as a domestic for a white family. A spin-off titled Good Times was made, where Rolle’s character became the center of the series; the show focused on her family, which lived generally happy lives in a low-income housing project. Other television series that featured mammies as characters include That’s My Mama, Gimme a Break! and What’s Happening!!.
When other contemporary mammies emerged, they usually retained their occupation as domestic workers and exhibited these physical feature changes; however, their emotional qualities remained the same. These contemporary mammies continued to be quick-witted and remained highly opinionated. A new twist in the outlook of the contemporary mammy occurred in the sitcom The Jeffersons, where Florence, a maid played by Marla Gibbs, works for an affluent African-American family.
A Different World was a 1980s sitcom that featured students at a fictional historically black college named Hillman. In an episode titled “Mammy Dearest,” the mammy stereotype was discussed. The episode centered on an exhibition planned by the character Whitley Gilbert. In the exhibition, Gilbert included images of a “mammy”. The character of Charnele Brown is upset and wants it taken out of the exhibition. Gilbert and others argue that they must reclaim the image and separate it from its racist history. Later in the episode Brown reveals a childhood story in which she dressed up a Nubian princess for a costume contest at school. When she won, she was announced as being Aunt Jemima. The incident was traumatic for her because she felt that was how people saw her.
Beulah Brown, originally a character on the radio sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly played by white actor Marlin Hurt, later played on television by Ethel Waters, then Louise Beavers, The Beulah Show, 1950–1953
Belle, played by Madge Sinclair, Roots, 1977
Mamie, played by Diva Tyler, Eastbound and Down, 2009-2013
A lot of people don’t hold her in high esteem because of the roles she portrayed as an actress and lack of participation in as many Civil Rights protests as other entertainers.
A singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star and the first African American to win an Academy Award, the first Black Oscar winner to have a postage stamp, the first Black woman to sing on the radio in the United States, and appearing in over 300 films, for trying to eliminate the use of the “N-word” from the film “Gone with the Wind” script, leading anti-segregation efforts in her Los Angeles neighborhood but most importantly for her ability persevere and for being successful despite the presence of rampant racism and brutal adversity in the entertainment industry.
She couldn’t even attend the Atlanta premiere of the movie that she won an Academy Award for and had to sit at a segregated table at the award ceremony when she accepted her Academy Award.