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Clinging to Mammy, by Micki McElya.

March 23, 2012


Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, by Micki McElya. Harvard University Press (2007), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 336 pages.

An amusing and horrifying history of the social, political, and commercial contexts that have encouraged white Americans to hold on to the myth of happy sacrificial mammies for more than a century after the end of slavery.

McElya argues that white Americans continue to cling to images of mammies as a response to blacks rejecting the submissive roles demanded by slavery. In support of her argument, she identifies the historical contexts and the individuals who helped create and popularize the image.

After noting that happy mammy stories originated before the Civil War as pro-slavery advocates sought to counter ex-slave narratives, McElya starts her analysis with Aunt Jemina selling pancakes at the Columbia World Fair in Chicago in 1893. The Fair was meant to exhibit modern progress available through American industry and manufacturing. A milling company that had developed the first “instant” cooking mix in their own laboratories hired a personable black woman to cook pancakes for visitors in their booth at the Fair. She and the pancakes were a big hit. Telling a variety of lies about the actual cook, they made Aunt Jemina into a staple of modern innovation and advertising. As they put it, “You, too, can have a slave in a box.”

Aunt Jemina and instant pancake mix appeared just as the nation was going through the trauma of industrialization which left farmers and workers struggling. During these same years, the north and the south were seeking to heal the divisions of the Civil War, chiefly by agreeing that northerners would let southerners treat ex-slaves as they wished. By the 1890s, white violence in the South had removed blacks from elective office and economic viability. White southerners were in the process of installing legal measures to enforce segregation. In the 1890s The U.S. Supreme Court declared that “separate, but equal” conditions were acceptable in the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision. In such as atmosphere, southerners and northerners could come together to enjoy the pancakes of a happy black mammy, one that always presented “servility, obedience, and joviality

I particularly liked McElya’s description of the proposal for the U.S. government to build a national monument to mammies in the 1920s. This project was pushed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy after World War I when the great migration of southern blacks to northern and southern cities was taking place. In response, whites had rioted against blacks, and blacks had stood their ground. The UDC claimed that the answer to unrest was to construct a monument to the memory of mammies in Washington, D. C. They explicitly claimed that such a monument would remind both races of how happy they had both been together under slavery.

The U.S. Senate voted approval for the mammy monument at the same time they voted down a bill to make the lynching of blacks a federal crime. Delays in the House, however, allowed strong opposition to develop. Much of the opposition came from black leaders and newspapers who pointed out that blacks had not experienced the same joy as slaves that whites had felt as slave owners. Glorification of mammies was seen as a contribution to white supremacy. Some whites also attack the idea, claiming that glorifying mammy had become code language for politicians claiming to be southern aristocrats.

The mammy monument was never built, but the popularity of mammy images continued among whites. As live-in servants were replaced by domestic servants who worked by the day, white women held on to the image of the mammy who loved those whom she served even more than her own children. McElya discusses the tensions created, citing Hunter, Lewis, Jones and Lewis, some of the books that the Real Help group read about the realities that domestic servants faced. Particularly insightful are the interviews with black women during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1953 which McElya includes. Meanwhile mammy images spread in the 1950s and 1960s as the civil rights movement gave blacks new opportunities. In 1963 Disney World opened Aunt Jemina restaurants, so popular and so “American” that international diplomats came to visit.

Eventually a few things changed. The image of Aunt Jemina on pancake mixes became younger and thinner, like “any working mother,” the company claimed. Disney World closed its Aunt Jemina-themed restaurants. Dark-skinned immigrant women from all over the world now take domestic servant and nanny jobs once held by black women, hiring other women to care for their own children back in their home countries. But today memorabilia featuring mammies are particularly hot items.

Still the basic problem remains. Wouldn’t it be nice if blacks would all go back to placing the happiness of whites above their own, like the mythic mammy did? Nice for some whites at least. As MHP points out in Sister Citizen, one of Michelle Obama’s tasks as First Lady is to challenge white assumptions that black women are and should be mammies.

Yes, I recommend Clinging to Mammy to a wide range of readers who want to be more sensitive to the history we have inherited. McElya’s book is uneven at times. Sometimes she uses “we” in ways that make it unclear if she means all Americans or only white ones. But the book is worthy of attention.

REAL HELP A group organized by Amy and Amanda read and discussed the books which were suggested by the Association of Black Women Historians to correct the problems with the book and movie, The Help. The books and reviews can be found on their page.

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry. An excellent analysis of stereotypes and the harm they do with a chapter on the mammy myth.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. A classic account of slavery by a black woman who was not a mammy.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2012 2:29 pm

    I’ve skimmed over much of this review as this is a book that is very high on my wish list and I intend to pick it up as soon as my buying ban is over. It sounds incredible.

    • March 29, 2012 9:26 am

      Glad you are planning to read this. You’ll appreciate her insights. The book is probably a revision of her dissertation and haS some structural issues, but her discussion of why Anglos continue to crave Mammies is excellent.


  1. Me, you, and books

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