Throughout the Black History Month series, I have reviewed historical figures, events of importance, as well as pieces of culture that are distinctly African-American. As the series continues, I plan to uncover the perception of black women in the United States as shown in advertisements, movies, and media etc…Today, I will specifically discuss the vision of black women as “mammies”. Mammies are the caricatures of black women seen in a head scarf and speaking with incredibly slurred speech. Mammies are typically depicted as overweight and dark skinned. As we examine the research done on mammies, we will find that this view of black women is incomplete and inaccurate. Yet, this perspective of black women has greatly shaped the economic success of black women in America and has led to further misconceptions of black women in the present day.
The most infamous black mammy of U.S. history is Aunt Jemima. Aunt Jemima is now seen on syrup bottles and several other food products sold across the nation. The face of the modern Aunt Jemima has completely changed since the original “Aunt Jemima” was used as the face to sell the product. In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 56 year old Nancy Green smiled and apparently told great stories while serving pancakes. Nancy Green was born a slave in Montgomery County, Kentucky. As I research the original Aunt Jemima, it says that: “Her warm and appealing personality made her the ideal “Aunt Jemima,” a living trademark.” Because of her noted success at the World’s Fair Exposition, mammy the new “Aunt Jemima” was given a life-long contract and traveled across the nation as the “Pancake Queen”. What made Mammy so warm and appealing to buyers that she was such a hit? Why was she the perfect face for the pancake mix?
At Ferris State University, the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia has created quite a comprehensive analysis of the black mammy. The mammy image of black women was not merely to boost sales of food products. The caricature of the black mammy functioned to discredit the fair treatment of black women. Black women as mammies served the U.S. long after Jim Crow segregation officially was done away with. As long as black women were fiercely loyal to their white employers, were docile in their service, and were happy to be of service, there would be no need to pay the black woman more money, treat her fairly, and allow her to become a productive member of society. If mammy was portrayed at the World’s Fair on stages, and in books, white men and women alike did not get the full message that black women were maltreated. M.M. Manring offers another perspective that Aunt Jemima provided the middle class white women with a “slave in a box”. Even post Civil War, white women could enjoy their status over blacks and be served by blacks in this Aunt Jemima age.
The popular image of black women seen in handkerchiefs covering their unruly hair, not holding intelligent conversation, and as very obese also served to mediate the tense sexual relations between white men and black women in the antebellum and post Civil War era in the U.S. The image of black mammy served to “desexualize” the black woman who would be in such close proximity to the powerful white male. Research by Professor Patricia Turner in African-American and African studies renders reports that black women as domestic servants were a rare finding in the pre-Civil War days. Of the few white families that could afford such slaves, the light-skinned black women were chose to serve in master’s house. The conflict here is that the lighter skinned black women were the ideal of beauty and something to be desired in the eyes of wealthy and poor white men. Hence, in order to negate these views and deny that such sexual arrangements whether forced or consensual could take place between a white man and a black woman, the unattractive mammy was thrust in the minds of whites. As long as black women were seen in such a misleading light, white women could preserve their power or sexual appeal over them. This technique only served to assuage the white female consciousness as black women were constantly taken advantage of by white males throughout history.
The caption on this photo reads: “Not Particular” (name of poem)
“I know you’re not particular to a fault, though I’m not sure you’ll never be sued for assault, you’re so fond of women that even a wench, attracts your gross fancy despite her strong stench.”
This text is found on a postcard from the 1900s that is overtly racist. It is making a clear statement about interracial dating. As it shows the obese black woman barefoot and adorned in her mammy garb, it also completely sexualizes the white male. It depicts the white male as exercising no restraint of his sexual urges. From this postcard, it is evident that black women were still seen as inferior, subservient, and unclean. These images of black women and interracial dating arrangements waged into the 1900′s.
The unfair portrayal of black women as unattractive and inferior justified their economic subjugation. I am curious how this image of black women played against the image of Sarah Baartman in Europe in the early 1800′s. Subjecting Sarah Baartman proved to support scientific findings that blacks were completely inferior but also stirred a morbid fascination with black anatomy in Europe. Then in the late 1800′s, we see the too widely recognized mammy Aunt Jemima pop up. Was the creation of the black mammy to dispel the fascination with female black sexuality that Sarah Baartman created? As black women once contested with being “desexualized” as mammies in a completely misrepresented example of the whole, they now wrestle with being overly sexualized. Music videos, video vixens, and scantily clad honies are all over the media networks and they multiply. They’re still something savagely beautiful and attractive about the black woman. But, as long as she’s shaking a tail feather and droppin’ it like it’s hot in the music videos, she’s not out there breaking down intellectual barriers and making strides. A different end of the same spectrum is where black women now stand in this dispute.
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Other Posts by Eryn on Black History Month: