Mammy archetype

Mammy archetype

The mammy archetype is perhaps one of the best-known archetypes of African American women. She is often portrayed within a narrative framework or other imagery as a domestic servant of African descent, generally good-natured, often overweight, very dark skinned, middle aged, and loud. The mammy was usually depicted in a negative manner and portrayed as lacking all of the sensual and sexual qualities that an attractive woman would have. This de-eroticism of the mammy would in turn imply that the white wife, and by extension the white family, was safe.[1]

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of mammy is "a black woman serving as a nurse to white children especially formerly in the southern United States".[2]

"Mammy's Cupboard," 1940 novelty architecture restaurant in Adams County, Mississippi.

The word mammy is a variant of mother formerly common in North America but now rarely used, and typically considered an ethnic slur.



The word mammy originated in Gaelic dialects around the 1700's but first saw widespread use in southern regions of the United States during the Civil War. Due to the fact that the term gained popularity during a time in which slavery was widespread, the address is commonly used with maternal figures in several cultures but totally unacceptable to African Americans. The concept of the "mammy" as a house servant was introduced in the 1830s as a stout, dark-skinned, smiling, hardworking, doting woman who offered the only "redeeming embodiment of black womanhood imaginable within the intertwined race, class, and gender distinctions of the 'Old South'".[1]

The "mammy" was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between African American women and white men within slave society in response to the antislavery attack from the North during the antebellum era, and to embellish it with nostalgia in the post-bellum period. In reality, according to the primary records from before the Civil War, hard evidence for the existence of the mammy simply did not exist.[3]

One of the earliest fictionalized versions of the mammy figure was Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).[3]

As the mammy figure progressed into the 20th century, it became larger than life in more ways than one, the personal was sacrificed to the demands of the white majority, who widely mythologized the figure. Even memoirs which describe the roles of mammies from the 1890s to the 1920s downplayed the mammy's relationship with her family.[3]


The mammy often had physical attributes that the Western culture would associate with masculinity. The mammy was usually a grossly overweight, large-breasted woman who is desexualized, maternal, and nonthreatening to white people but may be hostile towards men.

The qualities and characteristics that were attributed to the mammy represent a first hand and personal knowledge of her, which became standardized and institutionalized by an array of feelings. Many of these characteristics were denied to African American female slaves, but were generally attributed to the mammy. These traits include self-respecting, loyal, independent, forward, gentle, affectionate, strong, warm-hearted, courageous, capable, thrifty, proud, discreet, efficient, careful, harsh, devoted, tyrannical, sensible, fearless, popular, brave, trustworthy, skillful, tender, queenly, regal, good, pious, quick-witted, true, strong, compassionate-hearted, neat, quick, competent, possessed with a temper, truthful, as well as neither apish or servile.[4]

The method in which the mammy dressed often reflected the status of her owner or employer. The mammy was usually neat and clean, and wore attire that was suitable for her domestic duties. Sometimes a mammy considered herself to be "dressed up", but that was usually just an addition of "a bonnet and a silk velvet mantle", which probably belonged to her mistress. Sometimes she would even don a "Sunday black silk."[4]

Like most of the slaves at that time, the mammy was often unlettered, though intelligent in her own sense. Among many of the slaves there, there could have been a mammy who possessed the abilities to read and write, often taught to her by the children of the family with whom she worked for. However, as intelligent as she might have been, most of her intelligence was a result of past experiences and conflicts. In particular, a mammy of an aristocratic family could be identified by her air of refinement.[4]

Not only that, the mammy was also a diplomat in a way that she knew how to handle delicate situations so that her purpose would finally be accomplished. For instance, if there was a problem with the other house servants, the mammy would be sent to try to resolve the situation. Often, the situation could be defused by the mammy herself. It was known that the mammy turned from being a household servant position to sort of a prime minister position. If there was something that needed to be amended, the mammy would bring the issue up to the master at once and he would see to it according to the mammy's advice.[4]

When the mammy did not stay in the house of her master or were not busy attending to the needs of the master's children, she would usually live in a cabin that was distinguished differently than the cabins of the other servants in either size or structure with her husband and children. Her cabin stood near the "big house", or the master's house, but at a distance from the cabins of the other servants.[4]

Although the duties that the mammy had to perform were far less tiring and strenuous than those of the other servants, her hours were often long, leaving little time for her own leisure. It was not until the mammy had become too old for these duties that she would enjoy any home life of her own, since she was always preoccupied with the home life of her master.[4]

The mammy, unlike the other servants, was usually not up for sale, and the children of the mammy would be kept in the same family for as long as possible, retaining the same relationships that the mammy had with the master.[4]

There was a flexibility about the mammy's duties that distinguished her from just being an ordinary nurse or a wet nurse, even though there was a possibility that she could perform either of these tasks. In some of the more wealthy households, the mammy had assistants that would help her take care of the household's children. These women were often much younger than the mammy herself.[4]

Roles in plantation households

The role of the mammy in plantation households grew out of the roles of African American slaves on the plantation. African American servants played vital roles in the plantation household, assuming roles such as the washerwoman, the cook, the maid, the seamstress, the butler, the porter, the gardener, and the coachman.[4]

The mammy was a household servant who generally had specific duties to perform. The majority of these duties generally were related to caring for the children of the family, thus relieving the mistress of the house of all the drudgery work that is associated with child care. When the children have grown up to be able to take care of themselves properly, the mammy's main role was to help the mistress with household tasks. As her years of service with the family increased, the mammy's sphere of influence increased as well. She was next to the mistress in authority and had the ability to give orders to everybody in the house.[4]

The mammy tradition in the Southern household became a plantation tradition as well. This is because it first arose on a plantation and bloomed during when the plantation era was at its height. The mammy eventually entered the homes of the middle and the lower classes as well. Eventually though, the mammy became an imaginary figure that was created in the minds of those who never truly possessed one but still wished to be recognized as belonging to the aristocracy of the Old South.[4]

In plantation households, the mammy was often considered to be part of the family as much as its blood members were considered. Although she was considered of a lower status, she was still included in the inner circle. She has often been referred to as a "unique type of foster motherhood."[4]

Aside from just tending to the needs of the children, the mammy was also responsible for teaching the proper etiquettes to them, such as addressing the elders on the plantation as "aunt" or "uncle", as well as what was best to say on a particular occasion and what was not. The mammy was able to discipline their children whenever they performed something undesirable, and was able to retain their respect towards her, even after the children had grown to adults.[4]

Media portrayal

Hattie McDaniel famously played Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

The image of the mammy is so deeply rooted in American culture that it is found in virtually all aspects of print and visual media. The importance of the mammy image cannot be undermined, however, as its image represents the African American female adult, just as how the bad-black-girl is the image for the African American female youth and young adult. In addition, the image of the mammy also comes to serve as the basis for the image of Aunt Jemima, which is also used in the present day to describe a group of African American women based on their occupation, emotion qualities, physical make-up, as well as their behavior.

Historically, the media have portrayed the mammy in a stereotypical fashion, often being submissive towards her owners (during slavery) and to her employers (after emancipation.) She also displays aggressiveness towards others members of the African American community, particularly to males.[3]

Similar to the image of Aunt Jemima, the image of the mammy was given a contemporary makeover as well as she appeared in television sitcoms. Some of the more contemporary features that the mammy received were that her head rag was removed, she became smaller in size, as well as lighter in complexion. In addition, one of the major changes that the mammy experienced in modern television sitcoms was that her employer was not always white.[5]

Television is arguably the most important medium in portraying and perpetuating these symbols of the African American womanhood. Some of the contemporary television sitcoms which featured mammies included Maude, where Esther Rolle, who played the character Florida, worked as a domestic for a white family. As a result, a spin-off for the sitcom called Good Times was made, where Rolle's character was the center of the show and the show focused on her family, which lived in a low-income housing project but yet had good times. In the series, she also worked outside of her home as a maid. Other television sitcoms which starred a character with remarkable resemblance to the mammy archetype were Theresa Merritt in That's My Mama, which also starred Clifton Davis, as well as Nell Carter in Gimme a Break! and Mabel King in What's Happening!!. When other contemporary mammies emerged, they usually retained their occupation as a domestic and exhibited these physical feature changes; however, their emotional qualities remained intact. These contemporary mammies continued to be quick witted and remained highly opinionated.[3]

A new twist in the outlook of the contemporary mammy occurred in the show The Jeffersons, where Florence, a maid played by Marla Gibbs, worked for an affluent African American family. In the show, Florence was allowed to be verbally aggressive because she worked for an African American male. By doing so, the character Florence evoked a considerable amount of laughter due to her constant insults towards her employer, Mr. Jefferson.[3]

Other contemporary mammies were also portrayed on television by certain individuals who were portrayed not by an actress, but an actual African American professional female. They, like many of the other African American professional women, did not perform domestic tasks but did assume the role of the nurturer.[3]

Mammy characters were a staple of minstrel show, giving rise to many sentimental show tunes dedicated to or mentioning mammies, including Al Jolson's "My Mammy" from The Jazz Singer and Judy Garland's performance of "Swanee" from A Star is Born (a song originally made popular by Jolson). In early 20th century, the mammy character was common in many films. Most famously, Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her performance as "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind, in 1939. Various mammy characters would appear in radio and TV shows. One prominent example was the radio and later short-lived TV show Beulah, which featured a black maid named Beulah who helped solve a white family's problems. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Mammy Two Shoes, the housekeeper in the Tom and Jerry shorts presented an animated example of the mammy, complete with dark skin and a Black accent. Nell Carter's role as the housekeeper Nellie Ruth "Nell" Harper in the 1980s sitcom Gimme a Break! is typical of the mold. As a parody of this stereotype, 1984 Frank Zappa album Thing-Fish featured characters called "mammy nuns". In the recent Disney movie The Princess and the Frog, the protagonist was originally set to be named "Maddy," short for Madeline. This was deemed too similar to mammy and was changed to Tiana.

The mammy has not just been portrayed in television sitcoms, but also in movies as well. Common roles in American mass media seeming to be reserved for the Mammy stereotype include Secretarys, hospital/medical practice assistants and Greasy spoon diner order takers. For instance, Mabel Simmons, a fictional character that was created by comedian Tyler Perry and played by Perry himself, had many physical and emotional characteristics that match those of a mammy, such as being overweight, being an older woman, and being aggressive.[6] Despite the obvious downgrading of the African American woman with the mammy stereotype, the character has received overall praise from critics, including Entertainment Weekly's "whether she's going to jail or just opening up a can of whupass, Tyler Perry's Madea is the profane, gun-toting granny you never had but (maybe) wish you did."[3] The mammy archetype has also made other appearances in other movies, such as the hit trilogy Big Momma's House, which features an FBI agent, who is played by Martin Lawrence, who dresses up as a mammy-type woman as an effective disguise.[7]

Present-day use

The use of the archetype of the mammy lives on in the minds of present generation of both white and African Americans, since the term has been passed down generations through the legitimate stage, in moving pictures, and in fiction. Newspapers and periodicals also print stories of the mammy from time to time, and people living who came under her influences relate their experiences with the mammy with their family, their friends, and their acquaintances.

Perhaps the most notable use of the mammy image in today's culture is the image of Aunt Jemima, one of the other images of African American women that were created because of the mammy. In the 1980s, the image of Aunt Jemima was yet modified again by the Quaker Oats Company in order to place the face of Aunt Jemima on their pancake boxes and other food products. Subsequently, her image became more modernized by taking changes such as the removal of her headband and the reduction of her size.[3]

An Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix advertisement from 1932.

See also

Other African American archetypes

In addition to the archetype of the mammy, there have been other archetypes created in the past that depict African Americans in a negative connotation. These archetypes include but are not limited to:[8]

  • Sambo - a younger African American male who is often lazy and does not want to work.
  • Uncle Tom - an older African American male who is often docile and gives the idea that slaves enjoy being on plantations.
  • Tragic mulatto - a light-skinned African American woman who often faces a tragic ending due to her "one drop of African American blood."
  • Pickaninny - African American child who lives on the plantations.
  • Jezebel - a younger, hypersexualized African American female[9]


External links

Other references

  • Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum, 1973/1994), 57.
  • Camacho, Roseanne V., "Race, Region, and Gender in a Reassessment of Lillian Smith." Southern Women: Histories and Identities. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. p. 168.
  • Clinton, Catherine, The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 201-202.
  • Jewel, K Sue, From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of US Social Policy, 1993.
  • Parkhurst, Jessie W., The Role of the Black Mammy in the Plantation Household, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 23, No. 3
  • Smith, Lillian, Killers of the Dream. New York: W.W. Norton, 1949. p. 123-4.
  • Thurber, Cheryl, "The Development of the Mammy Image and Mythology." Southern Women: Histories and Identities, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. p. 96.
  • Turner, Patricia A., Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 44.

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