The politics of reclamation: Mammy

Mammy figure modeled after Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” (Richard Elzey/Flickr)

This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue

Mammy is one of the most recognized and enduring racial caricatures of Black women in America. Over the years, it has been featured in books, films, television shows and other forms of media.

Through these varying depictions of Mammy, audiences are forced to reckon with the history behind the character. In 1991, the caricature was explored in the sitcom “A Different World,” a spinoff of “The Cosby Show” that features Denise Huxtable and her experiences at Hillman, a fictional historically Black college. After season one, the focus of the show turns to many characters, primarily Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne.

Season five, episode 11 of “A Different World” is titled “Mammy Dearest.” The episode explores the Mammy trope and whether it’s “reclaimable,” or something Black people should consider as a significant part of their history and folklore.

In the episode, Whitley is in charge of a “dedication ceremony” for her residence hall, and she decides to create an exhibit of Black women in history. Whitley decides to feature “Mammy” in this exhibit, to the shock and dismay of many of her friends, particularly Kim, a dark-skinned woman.

Nevertheless, Whitley maintains that “Mammy” is an important figure to include and asks Kim to portray “Mammy” in this exhibit. After this, the focus of the episode turns to Kim and her thoughts about the caricature and Whitley’s request.

Kim goes on a seemingly endless journey of individuals telling her to either embrace the history, or saying that they don’t care. Those who brush off Kim’s concerns are primarily lighter-skinned women. It isn’t until Whitley discovers that her family-owned slaves that she reconsiders her position on Mammy.

At the end of the episode, Kim ends up dressing as Aunt Jemima, while another character, Freddie, a light skinned woman, is “Mammy.” This seems to be the conclusion to the problems raised during the episode, as all the characters celebrate Freddie’s portrayal of Mammy and Whitley’s exhibit.

While there’s a lot to unpack in this episode, Whitley’s original opinion, and the opinions of other supporting characters, that Mammy is something Black people should embrace is telling.

Mammy is a stereotype of Black women that has persisted throughout history, from the slavery era to Jim Crow. The design of this caricature directly reinforced racist ideas that dark-skinned Black women are unattractive and that Black women as a whole are only fit for domestic jobs.

“Black women were expected to be fertile, expected to be caretakers, particularly for white families, and that archetype is still associated with Black women today.”

Candice Merritt, African American Studies

The Mammy caricature was featured for the first time on the big screen for a relatively white audience in “Gone With the Wind.” In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in the film, solidifying her place as an important Black woman in history. However, she was heavily criticized for her role as Mammy, most notably by Walter White, then the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1942, White called on Black actors to stop “mugging and playing the clown before the camera.”

In determining whether Mammy can be redeemed, Communication senior Taylor Bolding confronted the question of what makes something reclaimable or not. She referenced a situation where Kanye West wore a jacket with a confederate flag and Black people’s usage of the “n-word.”

“I don’t think there’s a set, defined rule,” Bolding says. “There is an argument of reclaiming that and taking it and subverting the power that it has. I personally would not want to reclaim a confederate flag. Maybe we just consider words to be different than actual symbols or objects.”

Bolding also insists that McDaniel’s award-winning performance in “Gone With the Wind” as Mammy is worth acknowledging.

“In some shape or form, there were Black people that felt seen in her performance, same way there were Black people that were angry with her performance,” Bolding says. “Representation politics is a whole mess in and of itself, but in that moment in time that probably was revolutionary, just the act of having a Black person on screen.”

Hattie McDaniel and Vivien Leigh
Gone With The Wind (1939) – Vivien Leigh & Hattie McDaniel via Flickr

Candice Merritt, a third-year PhD student in African American Studies, echoed Bolding’s sentiment that the Mammy character should be recognized.

“Black women were expected to be fertile, expected to be caretakers, particularly for white families, and that archetype is still associated with Black women today,” she says. “I don’t see how you would not tell part of that as Black women’s history.”

Alongside the Mammy stereotype, Merritt added that there are other historical stereotypes of Black women that are important to remember and acknowledge in order to understand the full picture of Black women’s position throughout history and today. Modern depictions of Mammy can be found in films like “The Help,” where actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer play maids serving white families.

Merritt added that there are a plethora of stereotypes that Black women face in the media. Merritt commented on the Mammy, Jezebel, matriarch and Sapphire stereotypes, and the fact they fail to encompass the complexity of Black womanhood. It’s important to tell this part of Black history because the Mammy stereotype and conversations about how Black women are supposed to be and act are still being represented, Meritt says.

“When it comes to the evergiving figure of the Black woman as a carer, I think that’s something Black people have to wrestle with,” she says. “Even amongst each other.”