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Archive for June 13th, 2008

Mammy

Yesterday I commented on the Michelle Obama baby mama incident with Fox News, making some comments about contemporary readings of black women’s bodies in in the press and how those readings influence social policy.

Today Ilyka at Off Our Pedestals posted about the latest hipster accessory:

Meet Emancipatia – the anti-drunk-dialing mammy thimble.

Ah, yes…. the Mammy. One of several demeaning, controlling, stereotypical images of black women. The other controlling images include Jezebel, the Tragic Mulatto, Aunt Jemima, Sapphire, and the Welfare Queen. These stereotypical notions are intimately tied to the body.

Mammy, Aunt Jemima and the Welfare Queen may be collectively understood as a type. All three are typically depicted as fat, dark-skinned women whose uniforms include an apron and a kerchief covered head. Larger than life, their bodies are supposed to be de-sexualized, as they do not conform to the (white) norm of humanity and of idealized womanhood. Although the Welfare Queen is understood to be sexually undesirable, her many children indicate that she is a sexual being. The Mammy and Aunt Jemima icons are interchangeable in their desirability as the nurturer of other (white) people’s children. They are paradoxically sexually undesirable, yet sexual beings.

Mammy is constructed as a response to abolitionist claims that slave owners sexually exploited their female slaves – her image provided a measure of safety for white men. Mammy was loyal and content; and therefore did not seek a change in the system. Her pervasive image was a complete distortion of the reality of the system during the period of slavery and the ante-bellum era. Historical records and slave narratives note there are relatively few women who served the Mammy role, in comparison to numerous (white) memoirs and artistic representations celebrating her.

The end of slavery did not end the era of the Mammy image. By early 20th century, white working class households were beginning to employ black women. Yet this employment still abided by the rules of racial and gender segregation, marked by the stereotypes of who blacks and women were said to be. The racially segregated economy limited most blacks to menial jobs, with many black women being forced into domestic category to work as servants, maids and nurses (child care). Other types of jobs that were open to women were reserved for white women.

The image of the Mammy, from the era of slavery through the Jim Crow period is based upon a romanticized notion of the house servant who took care of the master’s children, who loved her white family more than her own. This image flourished during the Jim Crow era, and Mammy became the model of what a good black woman is. She is diametrically opposed to one of the other controlling images of black womanhood – that of the Jezebel – an overly sexualized, wanton temptress. Mammy’s image became more firmly entrenched as she appeared in movies (Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy in the movie Gone with the Wind), music (Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy”), and commercial advertisements.

Aunt Jemima is the 20th century embodiment of Mammy, continuing to nurture and care for needs of her masters.

The figure of Aunt Jemima illustrates the conflation of treating identity as property. The Jemimian “other” is birthed of America’s peculiar institution and its legacy, the other that is as close as buying, selling, breeding and suckling but still retaining a wide psychic gulf:

“Southerners bought slaves, worked them, housed them, fed them, slept with them, chained them, beat them and sometimes killed them. The slave is “historically, North America’s most coveted body, that is, the captivated man/woman-child who fulfills a variety of functions at the master’s behest.” The slave’s body is the goods and that which produces the goods. It is also a forbidden body: polluted and polluting. The discourses of the slave body are paradoxical. White culture feels great anxiety over black and white touching, yet the plantation produces mulattoes. Laws are written more stringently defining the opposition between the black body and the white body, yet some bodies move dangerously between the insisted-upon poles.”
(Roberts, D. (1994). The Myth of Aunt Jemima: Representations of Race and Region. London ; New York, Routledge, 26.)

Aunt Jemima’s origins are in the Mammy image. When the Pearl Milling Company was searching for an image for the first commercial pancake mix they had developed. A minstrel tune called “Old Aunt Jemima” captured the attention of the company owners, and they registered the trademark with the song title and the image of one of the blackface minstrel team members dressed as a Mammy. The promotion was one of the greatest successes seen in U.S. marketing history. Blackface minstrel teams of white men dressing in drag playing in shows idealizing the plantation south were standard fare by the late 19th century, with the standard Mammy “a fat, cantankerous cook … in southern plantation kitchens.”
(Townes, E. M. (2006). Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 38.)

Aunt Jemima grew out of the white imagination that created “Mammy,” a docile, asexual servant whose purpose was to cover over the truth of the brutality of slavery, and particularly the assaults on the bodies of black women by the men who enslaved them, as Mammy was clearly meant to be seen as an undesirable sex partner. As Mammy morphed into Aunt Jemima, Aunt Sally (baking powder), Aunt Dinah (molasses) and other figures, she deepened the mythology and solidified the false memory an idealized antebellum south. Here was the docile servant woman who knew her place, and took delight in nurturing and feeding the ones to whom her loyalty belonged: the white power structure. The stereotype of the Mammy figure also became a rationalization for race-based segregation in the workplace; black women were only suited for low-paying, menial positions as domestics.

The 19th century cult of true womanhood in America that placed white “ladies” on a pedestal pointedly did not include black women. The ideal (white) woman that the cult of true womanhood celebrated was delicate, refined and devoted to the proper upkeep of a home – even if it meant black domestics were actually doing the work. This lady was the moral conscience of the nation, even though she was considered intellectually and physically inferior to men. This “angel of the home” had a place – below white men, yet above black women and men. In contrast, the black female figure so idealized as Mammy for her ability to care for white children and families was simultaneously characterized as ignorant and incapable of providing decent care for her own family.

Yet the trope of the black woman who was truly not fit to keep a home or raise a child was saved for another controlling image – Jezebel. During the 18th century and beyond, another prevalent image of slave women was the character of Jezebel, a woman driven primarily by her sexual desires; constructed to justify white men’s sexual abuse of Black women. This myth continued to be perpetuated after slavery ended, and continues into contemporary times. As white women were upheld as the model of sexual purity, many black women who did not fit into the Mammy role (meaning those who were not fat and dark-skinned) were placed neatly into the Jezebel slot. The belief the blacks (women and men) were hypersexual being stemmed from cultural assumptions about blacks in Africa, even before the period of the slave trade. To the European gaze that understood itself as the norm for humanity and the example of proper behavior, African cultural norms in terms of dress, celebration and marriage customs were classified as primitive and lewd. Additionally, by the time of the slave trade, the naked black bodies of men, women and children were frequently on display within a culture where nakedness implied sexual immorality. Slave women were also frequently pregnant; even young girls were encouraged to become “breeders” in order to ensure the constant supply of future slaves. This evidence of sexual activity within the slave community served to solidify the notion of uncontrollable sexual appetites.

Patricia Hill Collins notes that efforts to control Black women’s sexuality lies at the heart of black women’s oppression. In addition to relegating all Black women to the category of sexually aggressive women to provide a rationale for sexual assaults by white men, Jezebel served another function. As noted, increased fertility was an expected outcome of Jezebel’s excessive appetites. This reality couples with the suppression of nurturing for their own families at the expense of caring for white families, slave owners linked the controlling images of Jezebel and Mammy to the economic exploitation rooted in the institution of slavery. Sexuality and fertility were not about Black women’s pleasure, or under our control.

Nor are our images.

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On June 12, 1963, 37 year old Medgar Evers was assassinated by Byron de la Beckworth in front of his (Evers’) home.

In this clip, Myrlie Evers recounts the night her husband was murdered.

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Everybody’s talking about it…. at least women of color. I’ve read the posts, yet thus far have passed up actually watching the Fox News video in which Michelle Obama is referred to as Obama’s “baby mama.” The women linked to above have done a stellar job in noting the offensiveness in this yet one more reminder that black women in this country have a place….and it is not in the halls of power. This is not the first time nor will it be the last that Mrs. Obama (who just a couple of weeks ago was an elitist, right? oh, and an unpatriotic one at that) will have her name and image dragged tarnished.

Not the first time for her, not the first time for black women in this country by a long shot. Anxious Black Woman discusses the parallel between contemporary fascination with/revulsion of the female black body and the Hottentot Venus:

“The original Hottentot Venus image was created at a time when England was colonizing Africa, when the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, and when there was a crucial need to crush the revolutionary spirit among slaves in the Americas (in the wake of the Haitian slave revolt). It was absolutely essential to create an image that suggested that Africans – by the very nature of their bodily existence – were sexual savages with debased morals and animalistic urges, who were therefore deserving of slavery and colonization. African women, in particular, were viewed as deserving to be raped and to be bred to support the slave labor economy.”

Read the whole piece.

It is not surprising that part of the continuing signification of black women’s images are connected to motherhood and sexuality. Our bodies are read almost exclusively through these lenses, yet they are not Hallmark card images of misty-eyed motherhood.

In 2007 New York Times article (membership signup required) reported on a recent, alarming rise in infant mortality in the south. The front-page piece focused on poor black mothers in Mississippi and was accompanied by several photos. The photos and examples within the body of the text boiled down to several ‘facts:’ very young black women are pumping out dozens of babies who fail to thrive; these women are often obese to the point of being grotesque; they don’t have morals, and they are not smart enough or caring enough to take care of their many children because these children frequently die. Infant mortality in a particular segment of the community is on the rise. Almost as an incidental aside, mention is made of limited access to prenatal care in the state, with one doctor noting, “… programs take money, and Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation.” Yet the bulk of the article’s text places the blame on the behaviors of the mothers themselves, such as the remarks of another doctor who is an obstetrician at a private clinic:

Another major problem, Dr. Marley said, is that some women arrive in labor having had little or no prenatal care. “I don’t think there’s a lack of providers or facilities,” he said. “Some women just don’t have the get up and go.”

Fifteen years earlier, almost to the day, another newspaper riffed on poor black women. This time an op-ed piece by Ellen Goodman expressed a similar sentiment as the above referenced article regarding “some women”. On April 16, 1992 the Boston Globe published Goodman’s piece, entitled “Welfare Mothers with an Attitude.” The column argued the need to teach middle class values to welfare mothers, and was accompanied by a graphic drawing illustrating several black figures grabbing for cash; an Afro-coiffed woman placed in the center of the graphic held a baby who was also depicted as reaching for cash. The dollars in question, as Goodman elaborated in the column, were welfare benefits. Goodman chastises the women for their supposed sense of entitlement to perpetual and ever increasing welfare benefits. The column and accompanying graphic worked together to fortify the myth that the face of a welfare recipient is an immoral black women who in turn teaches her children to be immoral; and that “we” need to teach “them” some values.

The message in Mississippi and Massachusetts, points in between and beyond: black women’s bodies need to be controlled, lest they bankrupt the state and spread their contagion to the rest of the nation. The imperative to control, to subjugate the bodies of black women, of course is not new. It is at least as old as the arrival of enslaved Africans to the Americas and the perpetuation of that system; with the bodies of girls and women in particular subjected not only to enforced labor, but also to the forced sexual demands of their captors/owners and subsequently the role of breeders of the next generation of bodies not owned by themselves. The fact of these bodies being so horrifically mistreated hinged upon the justification of them being something other than human.
Michelle Obama, of course, is not a welfare mother.

Yet she is a black woman and therefore, need not be treated with respect.

Apparently.

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