Media Depictions of the Mammy Archetype
By Sean Smith
Edited information, additional photo and film/television research by Dale Shields
The Mammy archetype is one of the most notable Black stereotypes and caricatures which exist in (Black) American culture.
The Mammy, generally characterized as masculine, overweight, sexually unattractive, large-breasted, non-threatening, and protective of their white families, but aggressive or hostile toward men; has been depicted in best-selling works of literature- Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), on radio and television- The Beulah Show (1934), countless movies from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) to the recent film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help(2009); and to a lesser known extent within minstrel and vaudeville shows.
The presence of the Mammy was not only an important aspect of the White Southern home during later periods of, and increasingly after slavery, but the Mammy archetype is also responsible for having propelled and too some degree haunted the careers of many historical Black actresses. Due to the racial tensions after slavery, the lack of desire to include Black women into the cinematic world of Hollywood, and overall lack of jobs for Black women, many Black actresses were limited to subservient roles on film and television. This often transpired into Black women playing domestic workers, and maintaining the stereotypical caricature of the Mammy role.
The role of the “Mammy” in the southern plantation household grew out of the role of the Negro slaves. Mammy was seen by southerners as a way to create and maintain relationships with Blacks after slavery, and she was a vital aspect to maintaining the domestic sphere of the white household; it was not uncommon for Mammy to also take on the responsibility of rearing the offspring of her white family. When examining Mammy’s role and status within the white family structure, she could at times be seen as equal to that of the mistress of the home, because of her non-threatening and desexualized image. Mammy often gave orders to the white children and was also seen as a main source of protection to the family and for the home in the absence of the family. Due to Mammy’s semi-authoritative role within the white household, she and her family-husband and children if any were present; were given separate living quarters not too far off the main housing unit of the family she was serving.
Although it may seem that the role of Mammy was more dignified compared to other servants, any social status achieved was diminished by her subservient domestic duties. Mammy’s often worked long hours to ensure the social and domestic stability of her master’s family, which often consequentially resulted in the neglect of her own family. Given this factor, Blacks viewed the role of the Mammy as a form of cultural transgression for the Black race but unfortunately were unable to transcend the Mammy image, as Black women sought out work in the post-slavery era and as they became more visible in American cinematic culture. Although the Mammy archetype is most notable in visual media, one of the earliest mentions of a Mammy figure transpired from a literary character within Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In Stowe’s novel, Aunt Chloe was the mammy figure, who was responsible for the domestic duties of the Shelby household; and often struggled internally with complex issues about her role as a domestic servant and slavery. Aunt Chloe was described as many Mammy figures have been throughout history- 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.
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.
Although the Mammy was first described in a literary text, the Mammy caricature which is still present in today’s society; became a staple in American entertainment in the early 1900s.
First appearing in the film adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman (1905), the highly criticized; for is stereotypical racial depictions of Blacks, D.W. Griffith’s silent film, Birth of a Nation (1915).
Birth of a Nation depicted the Mammy archetype played by actress Jennie Lee in Blackface. Birth of a Nation was protested by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, due to what the NAACP saw as a promotion of the Ku Klux Klan and racial stereotypes which negatively depicted Black men as savages and Black women as servants or Mammy.
Al Jolson as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer singing his classic Mammy, 1927. Al Jolson “Mammy” The Jazz Singer 1927 by Howard & Tami.
Although Jolson; who is of Jewish descent (born Asa Yoelson), was known for performing his songs in Blackface, he is often widely credited for deconstructing racial barriers and negative attitudes against Black performers on Broadway.
In John Kenrick’s- Al Jolson: A Biography, Kenrick, notes that Jolson felt that Blackface “gave him a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known. Jolson is also widely known to have been influenced by Black music, mainly tunes from New Orleans; which explains Jolson’s gravitation toward and use of Black Jazz music within his shows. Jolson is additionally credited with introducing white audiences into the culture of Black entertainment.
Jolson’s success in minstrel and vaudeville shows, and the growing popularity of the Mammy figure, other white male actors, began to follow Jolson’s lead in voicing or portraying the Mammy. Most notable is actor Marlon Hurt, who was the white actor, who used a Black dialectical voice for the character Beulah. Beulah; voiced by Hurt, was first heard on the Hometown Incorporated radio series and the first season of the Beulah radio series (1939).
Hurt (1905-1946), was an American stage entertainer and radio actor. It is believed that Hurt’s inspiration for the Beulah’s voice was an African-American woman named Mary who was Hurt’s family Mammy. After Hurt appeared on several radio programs using the Black dialectical voice, the Beulah show was eventually given its own platform in 1943. Although Hurt brought the voice of Beulah to critical acclaim, his tenure on the radio series as the voice of Beulah was short-lived due to his untimely death in 1946; near the end of the first season of the series. Following Hurt’s death and keeping in line with the previous voicing of Black dialects by white actors, Beulah was then voiced by another white actor by the name of Bob Corley; at which time the show was once again renamed to The Beulah Show. Corley remained the voice of Beulah until November 24, 1947, when notable Black actress Hattie McDaniel took over the radio show earning $1000 a week, and eventually negotiated $2000 a week. McDaniel garnered the highest ratings for the show than previously earned by both Hurt and Corley. McDaniel later appeared on six episodes in the second season of the T.V. adaptation of The Beulah Show in 1951 but was replaced by actress Lillian Randolph after falling ill.
“I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7.”
By Richard Harland Smith
Actress Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952)
Hattie McDaniel born June 10, 1895, was one of the best-known Black American actresses of the 20th Century. McDaniel, like many Black actresses of her time period, often struggled to gain television and film roles outside of the subservient role of the Mammy.
Although McDaniel had previously garnered critical acclaim for her voicing of and appearance on The Beulah Show; as Beulah Brown- with co-star Ruby Dandridge (Mother of screen star Dorothy Dandrige), McDaniel was present in many films throughout her career in the 1920s and 1930s.
She was most notable for her role as “Mammy”, in the critically acclaimed film Gone with the Wind (1934).
Hattie McDaniel (Mammy)
Gone with the Wind
McDaniel had played the Mammy figure in many of her prior films, but her role in Gone with the Wind was pivotal due to her being the first Black actress to acquire an Academy Award nomination and win for her portrayal of “Mammy” in the film, and the personal connection she made with the character.
McDaniel stated that she understood Mammy, because her own grandmother had worked on a plantation in a similar role. McDaniel was widely praised for her success and simultaneously received massive criticism for her continued participation in maintaining the lifeline of the Mammy caricature. The harshest criticism of McDaniel’s role in the film was from the N.A.A.C.P. The N.A.A.C.P felt that McDaniel was creating a counterproductive dialogue through her continued acceptance of subservient cinematic roles in a time period when they were fighting for racial equality. In response to her critics, McDaniel was quoted to have said: “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.”
In addition to McDaniel’s personal detractors, the film itself received numerous amounts of criticism from the Black press and the Black community. Objections of the film ranged from the whimsical use of the word “nigger and the overall negative representation of Black culture and its people. Although both McDaniel and the film received their share of praise and criticism, the role of Mammy, played by McDaniel, was said to have helped shape the future respect of performances for Black actresses- including McDaniel’s co-star Butterfly McQueen.
“Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen (January 7, 1911 – December 22, 1995) was an American actress. Originally a dancer, McQueen first appeared as Prissy, Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She continued as an actress in film in the 1940s, then moving to television acting in the 1950s.”
Ms. McDaniel and Ms. McQueen were both at the height of their careers during their appearance in Gone with the Wind, but they were only two out of several Black actresses who were making strides in the film industry; all nonetheless as Mammy caricatures. Most closely related to the skill and talent of Ms. McDaniel was that of Ms. Louise Beavers.
“Louise Beavers (March 8, 1902 – October 26, 1962) was an African-American film and television actress. Beavers appeared in dozens of films from the 1920s until 1960, most often in the role of a maid, servant, or slave. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio. Louise Beavers was a breakthrough actress for African Americans. Beavers became known as a symbol of a “mammy” on the screen. A mammy archetype “is the portrayal within a narrative framework or other imagery of a domestic servant of African descent, generally good-natured, often overweight, and loud”.[” –
Prior to Hattie McDaniel’s success in GWTW, another well-known actress during the time period was Louise Beavers. Louise Beavers, born March 8, 1902, was a Black American stage, television, and film actress; is noted to possibly have been a descendant of President James Monroe. Louise Beavers began her acting career in the 1920s, performing with the Lady Minstrels- a group of young women who staged amateur productions and appeared on stage at the Loews State Theatre. Beavers begin her film career in 1927 and like those before her-most notably Hattie McDaniel; Louise Beavers was often cast for the Mammy role in her films. It is initially stated that Beavers rejected the casting call for a role in the film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin three times before finally accepting the role, “because of the African roles given to colored people.” Beavers acclaim in the 1920s was through her role as Julia in the 1929 film Coquette.
Louise Beavers as Julia in Coquette (1929)
It is believed that this role established Beavers as a prominent African-American actress within the mainstream industry. Because of Beavers’ stature and dialectical voice, she soon became known as the actress to play the Mammy roles. Beavers’ best-known role was that of Aunt Delilah in Imitation of Life (1934).
This role transformed Beavers from a supporting actress; which she had previously played for white actresses, into the star of her films. Imitation of Life detailed the story of a Black maid played by Beavers, who inherits a pancake recipe. This movie’s mammy gave the valuable recipe to Miss Bea, her boss. Miss Bea successfully marketed the recipe and she offered Aunt Delilah a twenty percent interest in the pancake company.
While Beavers’ continued success and notoriety in the film industry is important, what is even more intriguing is the concept behind Beavers’ character in Imitation of Life. Aunt Delilah was a character conceived from the Aunt Jemima pancake mix Mammy, portrayed by Nancy Green from 1890 until her death in 1923. Nancy Green born a slave in Kentucky in 1834; was hired by the R.T. Davis Milling Company (1890) to represent ‘Aunt Jemima. The brand was conceived after being mentioned in a minstrel show song performed by Billy Kersands-an African-American comedian and dancer, entitled Old Aunt Jemima (1875).
With executives of the company looking for a Mammy caricature to publicly advertise their brand, the company hired Green; after her successful showing at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition. A recent depiction of ‘Aunt Jemima’ has been transformed from the Mammy archetype, into a more befitting image of a Black woman.
Portrait of Nancy Green as “Aunt Jemima” by A. B. Frost
” Nancy Green (November 17, 1834 – September 23, 1923) was a storyteller, cook, activist, and one of the first African-American models hired to promote a corporate trademark as “Aunt Jemima. Green was born into slavery on March 4, 1834, in Montgomery County, Kentucky. She was hired in 1890 by the R.T. Davis Milling Company in St. Joseph, Missouri, to represent “Aunt Jemima”, an advertising person named after a song from a minstrel show. Davis Milling had recently acquired the formula to a ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour from St. Joseph Gazette editor Chris L. Rutt and Charles Underwood and was looking to employ an African-American woman as a Mammy archetype to promote their new product. In 1893 Green was introduced as Aunt Jemima at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, where it was her job to operate a pancake-cooking display. Her amicable personality and talent as a cook helped establish a successful showing of the product, for which she received a medal and certificate from the Expo officials. After the Expo, Green was offered a lifetime contract to adopt the Aunt Jemima moniker and promote the pancake mix. This marked the beginning of a major promotional push by the company that included thousands of personal appearances and Aunt Jemima merchandising. Nancy Green maintained her job with Davis Milling (which was renamed Aunt Jemima Mills Company in 1914) until 1923 when she died” –
As with food advertisements, the Mammy caricature also appeared in numerous cartoons throughout the 1940s; the most recognizable figure was that of ‘Mammy Two Shoes’, in the Tom and Jerry Cartoon series.
First appearing on Feb 10, 1940, in the Puss Gets the Boot episode, ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ was voiced by Lillian Randolph and had a high-pitched, Black southern colloquial dialect. Randolph, who also had earlier roles on The Beulah Show, was said to have been chosen because show’s producers were searching for someone to voice a character similar to that of Hattie McDaniel’s ‘Mammy’ from GWTW. ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ appeared within the series for twelve years and was later redrawn into a thinly framed white woman; the face of ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ was never shown except briefly in the ending credits of one episode.
The Mammy archetype has long existed within our history and has provided opportunities for Black actresses to pursue entertainment careers. Although many of their careers were limited, and the Mammy archetype was derived from insensitive cultural understanding during the post-slavery era, many Black actresses still face the challenges of being cast into subservient roles today. We as a culture have not entirely moved away from our obsession with the Mammy archetype, as recently seen with The Help (2009).
“The story of domestic workers in the 1960s that fuels the newly released movie The Help is still happening today, organizers say. Maids, nannies, and housekeepers are expected to work long hours and sometimes be available around-the-clock, and for little pay. Some are subject to sexual and other forms of abuse. They can be let go with no notice or even a “thank you.”
The big difference is that while the movie is set in the racially segregated South of years past and focuses on the plight of African-Americans, many of today’s domestic workers are from other countries. Some have many years of education in their backgrounds, but when they come to the United States, the only work they can find is domestic. And they are organizing.
In addition to the challenges of seeking acceptable roles, actors and actresses, must battle the challenges of colorism, sexual exploitation, and a lack of desire within Hollywood, to create educational, historical, and accurate portrayals of Black culture. This paper is in no way to serve as an all-encompassing examination of the Mammy archetype, as there are hundreds of historical Black actresses who have played the role of the Mammy. But this paper does serve as a foundation for its readers to conduct further research on such a fascinating topic and pivotal aspect of (Black) American entertainment and historical culture.
Other Notable Actresses include:
Virginia Capers- Big Jake
Eliza Virginia Capers (September 22, 1925 – May 6, 2004) was an American actress born in Sumter, South Carolina, Capers attended Howard University and studied voice at the Juilliard School in New York City. She made her Broadway debut in Jamaica in 1957 as the understudy for Adelaide Hall in the role of Grandma Obeah and took over the role when Hall left the show. Capers went on to appear in Saratoga and Raisin,[ for which she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. –
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ruby Dandridge (Mother of Dorothy Dandridge) – The Beulah Show
Ruby Dandridge (March 3, 1900 – October 17, 1987) was an American actress from the early 1900s to the 1950s. She is best known for her radio work in her early days of acting. On September 30, 1919, she married Cyril Dandridge. She moved with her husband to Cleveland, Ohio, where her daughter, actress Vivian Dandridge (1921–1991) was born. A second daughter, Academy Award-nominated actress Dorothy Dandridge, was born there the following year, in 1922, five months after Ruby and Cyril divorced. It is noted that after her divorce, Ruby Dandridge became involved with her companion Geneva Williams, who reportedly overworked the children and punished them harshly. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Estelle Evans (Sister of Ester Rolle) – To Kill a Mockingbird.
Estelle Evans (October 1, 1906 – July 20, 1985) was a Bahamian-born American actress. She was born in Rolle Town in the Bahamas. After playing Calpurnia in the 1962 version of To Kill a Mockingbird she went on act in several other movies and television shows until her death in 1985. She was the sister of actresses Esther Rolle and Rosanna Carter. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Lillian Randolph – All-American Co-Ed (1941) and The Beulah Show.
Lillian Randolph (December 14, 1898 – September 12, 1980) was an American actress and singer, a veteran of radio, film, and television. She worked in entertainment from the 1930s well into the 1970s, appearing in hundreds of radio shows, motion pictures, short subjects, and television shows. Like her sister, Amanda, Lillian was also one of the actresses to play the part of Beulah on radio. Lillian assumed the role in 1952 when Hattie McDaniel became ill; that same year, she received an “Angel” award from the Caballeros, an African-American businessmen’s association, for her work in radio and television for 1951. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Theresa Harris – Hold Your Man (1932)”Actress Theresa Harris once shared with a reporter that her “greatest ambition was to be known someday as a great Negro actress. She briefly pursued a career in theatre, gaining her most acclaimed role as the title character in the Lafayette Player’s musical production of Irene. In 1933, she received her first credited film role as a domestic in the drama Baby Face and subsequently became one of RKO’s most visible stock players. Although routinely donned in an apron and head wrap, Harris refused to comply with the mammy stereotype and parlayed her dignified style in a plethora of Hollywood’s most classic films. Under RKO, Harris later graduated to glamorous film roles, semi-frequently showcasing her vocal abilities in solo segments. Recognition as one of the industry’s leading African American actresses followed rave reviews of her role as comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s costar in Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), which earned Harris a two-year, multi-picture contract with Paramount Studios.”
Amanda Randolph – The Laytons
” (September 2, 1896 – August 24, 1967) was an American actress and singer. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, she was the older sister of actress Lillian Randolph. She was the first African-American performer to star in a regularly scheduled network television show, appearing in DuMont’s The Laytons. This short-lived program was on the air two months in 1948.”From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ethel Waters – Member of the Wedding.
Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was an African American blues, jazz and gospel vocalist and actress. She frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, although she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1949 for the film Pinky. In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance opposite Julie Harris in the play The Member of the Wedding. Waters and Harris repeated their roles in the 1952 film version of Member of the Wedding” In 1950, Waters starred in the television series Beulah but quit after complaining that the scripts’ portrayal of blacks was “degrading.”
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
“Ethel Waters sings Eyes On The Sparrow. Song from the 1952 movie “The Member of the Wedding” With Ethel Waters as Bernice Sadie Brown; Julie Harris as Frankie Addams; and Brandon De Wilde as John Henry.”
“In 1926, The Quaker Oats Company purchased the brand and finally hired Anna Robinson to be the next Aunt Jemima®, playing her as part of the promotion at The Chicago World’s Fair, in 1933. The brand’s first slogan (launched at The World’s Fair) carried the mammy archetype further, being, “I’se in Town, Honey!”