The Mammy stereotype was the main way white Americans looked at black women from the early 1800s to the 1950s. Think of Aunt Jemima, Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and even Nell Carter in “Gimme a Break” (1981-1987). Regina Taylor in “I’ll Fly Away” (1991-1993) was the anti-Mammy and probably ten times truer to life.
The Mammy pictured female household slaves as:
- undesirable, at least to white men,
- given enough power to run the household,
- happy to serve whites, always smiling and laughing,
- perfect straight, white teeth.
This is a complete and utter lie.
The ugly truth is that they were:
- thin, because they barely got enough to eat;
- young, because only one in ten ever saw age 50;
- light-skinned, a daughter of rape;
- desirable to white men and therefore raped;
- utterly powerless,
- extremely unhappy.
And most likely had bad teeth too since the rest of the stereotype is such a lie.
Even after the slaves were freed the Mammy stereotype continued to put a happy face on black women’s lowly position in society, helping to set at ease the hearts of good white people everywhere.
Mammies were so happy to serve whites that in the American films of the early 1900s they are shown giving up riches and even their freedom for the chance to continue serving “their white family” (their own husbands and children be damned, apparently).
Household slaves were not as common as you might think. While slaves working in the field picking cotton made their masters money, slaves working in the house did not.
Black women working in the houses of white people only became common after the slaves were freed. From the 1860s to the 1950s almost the only way for a black woman to make money was to become a maid, cook or washerwoman. A well-to-do white family could afford a black maid who cleaned, cooked and looked after the children.
Since well-to-do whites mainly knew black women as maids, the Mammy stereotype became the main one, especially in Hollywood.
Mammy was so much a part of American life that the very first song ever heard in a film was “My Mammy” by Al Jolson in 1927. You can see her two feet in the old “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.
The most famous Mammy by far was Aunt Jemima. Modelled on Nancy Green, she became the face and name of a just-add-water pancake mix. Green was at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, making pancakes, singing songs and telling stories of the old South when black people and white people were so happy. She became known across the country. “I’se in town, honey.”
You can still see her on the box. She now has a perm instead of a kerchief to cover her hair, but she still has the Mammy dark skin, perfect white teeth and smile. Happy to serve.