“I’d Walk a Million Miles for One of your Smiles, my Mammy”

Mammy’s Kitchen (now a shop) near Natchez, Miss., is a monument to a certain kind of bad taste. But it also is one of the country’s great monuments of roadside architecture.

The mammy image represents the old Dixie concept of the devoted slave.  It became the primary symbol of the Lost Cause. The subversive Negro woman portrayed the devotion to the white family as a product of the “Old South” nostalgia.  Depicted as a large, rotund, black woman in petticoats rustling around the plantation, she wears a turban, earrings, and an apron.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines her as a black woman serving as a nurse to white children especially formerly in the southern United States, the word “mammy” first used in  1523.

Scattered throughout the South,  many monuments exist dedicated to the “faithful slave” that shifted from slave memory, to the southern way of life, that exhibited the kindly relations between master and slave. The popular Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, depicts devoted slave mammies hugging their master in one panel, and their husbands in another, as they march into battle, while a white child clings to mammies’ apron.[1] Does this child symbolize the resistence to let go of her strings?

 In Race and Reunion, David Blight writes about the intentions of the UDC to construct mammy memorials in every state.  Many of the elite women in the organization felt obligated that they “must remember the best friend of their childhood.”[2]  In 1922, the UDC’s proposed to construct a Mammy Monument as a testament to the supposedly happy slave who tended to the white families.  The rhetoric of the UDC being that the statue would honor the stereotyped submissive slave, but also instruct future generations in the values of the Old South.  The monument bill passed the house but never made it out of committee in the Senate.[3]

The mammy of the twentieth century became a profitable image and a propaganda tool.  1923 political cartoons directly addressed mammy proposals using derogatory images to insult the female African American.  In 1927, the first talkie film The Jazz Singer,  featured a black faced  Al Jolson lamenting a tune about his mammy, that brings tears to the eye every time I watch it.  His character is the son of a Jewish Cantor who defies his father in order to become a jazz singer, [4] that might imply a kindred to the Black jazz musicians of the Harlem Renaissance.

Mammy became a marketing icon using the jovial figure to sell products and knickknacks such as saltshakers, cookie jars, and table lamps in the 40’s and 50’s causing the Black Arts movement to protest against the idealized mammy figures.[5]  Her face continues to sell Aunt Jemima pancakes with her image evolving into a slim, updated modern African American logo.  Brown syrup resembling brown skin, fills the bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s female figure.  A current petition exists to the Quaker Oats Company that begins: “We the undersigned are outraged and offended that your company has insisted on keeping as its trademark a racist, sexist symbol that has been an insulting degrading stereotype directed against black American women for over 100 years.[6]

My mammy memorial symbolizes all womanhood, and the survival instinct of mothers in general.  She is the all-consuming mother who encompasses love and life for the children of the earth. Who’s your mammy?


[1] Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commeration: A Brief History With Documents.  (Boston:Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004)  66.

[2]David W. Blight, Race and Reunion (Cambridge:HarvardUniversity Press, 2001) 288.

[3]Micki McElya,  Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-century America.(Cambridge:

HarvardUniversityPress, 2007) 161.

[4]Internet Movie Database.21 June 20011, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018037/

[5] Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, “Southern Memory, Southern Monuments, and the Submissive Black Mammy,” Southern Spaces, 15 June 2009, http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/southern-memory-southern-monuments-and-subversive-black-mammy.

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3 comments
  1. magaliq said:

    Wow! I did not realize the extent of which the Mammy figure had been used in roadside kitsch. Trying to place myself into late 19th century/early 20th century mentality, I can see that Mammy would have been a large part of many Southerners lives. Mammy would have been the one person that cared about you and was with you since childhood. A Southerner would most likely have good feelings about Mammy. But, in more modern times, wouldn’t Mammy be seen as divisive as a Confederate flag? Since Americans have tried to become so politically correct in terms of American Indians, maybe it is time we shelf Mrs. Butterworth for a more modern alternative.

  2. jadams08 said:

    I knew about the Aunt Jemima picture still on syrup, and having the “white privelage” I guess I never really paid much mind to it. I have frequently been exposed to many Mammy propaganda because I love to rummage through antique stores and it is interesting yet startling all the stereotypical Mammy stuff there is out there. Before this class, when I heard the word Mammy, it would make me think of my mother. She was the all in one mom, worked, took care of the kids, maintained a home and really did it all. But after this class, when I hear the word Mammy I instantly think of a African American slave during the Civil War and all the negative connotations that come with it. It is hard to move from the stereotypical image of Mammy, but I think the term should stay in that era and not continue in the future.

  3. “I’d Walk a Million Miles for One of your Smiles, my Mammy”
    I loved the Mrs. Butterworth maple syrup! The decanter was so cool and the syrup was delish, BUT you are so right to say that no matter what (and regardless if some people may think something is okay or cool), in some cases there will be outrage from those who take offense. Unfortunately, as Americans living in a melting pot, we sometimes overlook and are insensitive to how others react and do take offense to a comment or an image. Does this mean we need to walk on eggshells? Probably not, put it would be wise to be considerate of people’s nationality. As I turn the tables here for a moment and think about how I have reacted on certain occasions, it is easy to see how we can offend a a group of people unknowingly. For instance, now that I think about it, I did not care for the Taco Bell commercial way back when, where the Chihuahua dog would say “yo quiero Taco Bell.” I’m sorry people, but my first reaction to the commercial was “okay so we speak English with an accent, but dude…did you have to use a dog (a puny one at that) to depict Latinos? After the fact and in truth, I thought it was a cute commercial, but I do recall some people who were quite offended by it. In fact, I also remember that the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles protested to have the commercial removed and I believe it was promptly taken off the air. Concerning Mammy, she will be described differently by an individual’s personal perception; one will depict Mammy as a slave in a white household and another will see her as a nurturing motherly image who was considered an extension in the family, but for some African Americans it is an outright insult to continue to depict them as people of lower means.

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