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HandWiki. Mammy Archetype. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 18 April 2024).
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Mammy Archetype

A mammy, also spelled mammie, is a U.S. stereotype, especially in the South, for a black woman who worked in a white family and nursed the family's children.

mammy mammie children

1. History

One of the earliest fictionalized versions of the mammy figure is Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was first published in 1852.[1] As the mammy figure progressed into the 20th century, the persona was sacrificed to the demands of the white majority, who widely mythologized the figure. Memoirs that describe the roles of mammies from the 1890s to the 1920s downplayed the mammy's relationship with her family.[1]

The background of the mammy figure was the history of slavery in the United States. African-American female slaves were tasked with the duties of domestic workers in White American households. Their duties included preparing meals, cleaning homes, and nursing and rearing their owners' children. Out of these circumstances arose the image of the mammy.[2]

While originating in the slavery period, the mammy figure rose to prominence during the Reconstruction Era. In the Southern United States, the mammy played a role in historical revisionism efforts to reinterpret and legitimize their legacy of chattel slavery and racial oppression. The mammy image endured there to the 20th century. In 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy proposed the erection of a mammy statue on the National Mall. The proposed statue would be dedicated to "The Black Mammy of the South".[2]

The historicity of the mammy figure is questionable. Historical accounts point to the identity of most female domestic servants as teenagers and young adults, not "grandmotherly types" such as the mammy. According to Black Feminist Thought (1990) by Patricia Hill Collins, the life expectancy of enslaved women was 33.6 years, meaning that few lived to an age to fit the mammy portrayal.[dubious ] Melissa Harris-Perry has argued that the mammy was a creation of the imagination of the White supremacy, which reimagined the powerless, coerced slave girls as soothing, comfortable, and consenting women.[2] In 1981, Andy Warhol included the mammy in his Myths series, alongside other mythological and folklore characters such as Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse, and Superman.[2]

In Mammy. A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (2008), Kimberly Wallace-Sanders argued that the mammy's stereotypical attributes point to the source of her inspiration: "a long lasting and troubled marriage of racial and gender essentialism, mythology, and southern nostalgia.[2]

The romanticized mammy image survives in the popular imagination of the modern United States. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a licensed psychologist, argues that political correctness has led to the mammy figure being less prevalent in the 21st century culture, but the mammy archetype still influences the portrayal of African-American women in fiction, as good caretakers, nurturing, selfless, strong, and supportive, the supporting characters to white protagonists. She cites as examples Miranda Bailey, Mercedes Jones, and Ivy Wentz.[2]

2. Characteristics

The mammy was usually portrayed as an older woman, overweight, and dark skinned. She was an idealized figure of a caregiver: amiable, loyal, maternal, non-threatening, obedient, and submissive. The mammy figure demonstrated deference to white authority. On occasion, the mammy was also depicted as a sassy woman. She was devoted to her owners/employers and her primary goal in life was to care for their needs. Some portrayals had the mammy have a family of her own. But her caregiving duties would always come first, leading to the mammy being portrayed as a neglectful parent or grandparent.[2] And while the mammy was devoted to her white family, she often treated her own family poorly. Moreover, she had no black friends. [3]

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011) by Melissa Harris-Perry describes the relationship between the mammy and other African Americans: "Mammy was not a protector or defender of black children or communities. She represented a maternal ideal, but not in caring for her own children. Her love, doting, advice, correction, and supervision were reserved exclusively for white women and children." [2]

The mammy was contrasted with the Jezebel stereotype which depicted younger African-American women as conniving and promiscuous. The mammy was occasionally depicted as a religious woman. More often than not, the mammy was an asexual figure, "devoid of any personal desires that might tempt her to sin". This helped the mammy serve as both a confidant and a moral guide to her young charges, capable of keeping them in line.[2]

Mammy. A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (2008) by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders includes other characteristics of the mammy. A large dark body, a round smiling face, a deeply sonorous and effortlessly soothing voice, a raucous laugh. Her personal attributes include infinite patience, self-deprecating wit, an implicit understanding and acceptance of her own inferiority, and her devotion to whites.[2] The mammy was also large-breasted, desexualized, and potentially hostile towards men. Many of these characteristics were denied to African-American female slaves but were generally attributed to the mammy.[4]

2.1. Manner of Dress

The dress often reflected the status of her owner. 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.[5]

2.2. Education

Like most of the slaves at that time, the mammy was often illiterate though intelligent in her own sense. Among many of the slaves, there could have been a mammy who possessed the abilities to read and write, often taught to her by the children of the family for whom she worked. 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.[5]

2.3. Living Conditions

When the mammy did not stay in the house of her master or was not busy attending to the needs of the master's children, she would usually live with her husband and children in a cabin that was distinguished from the cabins of the other slaves in either size or structure. Her cabin stood near the master's house but at a distance from the cabins of the other slaves.[5]

Although the duties were far less tiring and strenuous than those of the other slaves, 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. 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.[5]

The mammy, unlike the other slaves, 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.[5]

3. 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 slaves played vital roles in the plantation household. 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 had grown up and were 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.[5]

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". Aside from just tending to the needs of the children, the mammy was also responsible for teaching the proper etiquette 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 her charges whenever they performed something undesirable and was able to retain their respect towards her, even after the children had grown to adults.[5]

4. Media Portrayal

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

Like 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 and she became smaller, as well as lighter in complexion. In addition, her owner was not always white.[6]

Some contemporary television sitcoms which featured mammies include Maude, where the character Florida, played by Esther Rolle, worked as a domestic for a white family. A spin-off titled Good Times was made, where Rolle's character became the center of the series; the show focused on her family, which lived generally happy lives in a low-income housing project. Other television series that featured mammies as characters include That's My Mama, Gimme a Break! and 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. A new twist in the outlook of the contemporary mammy occurred in the sitcom The Jeffersons, where Florence, a maid played by Marla Gibbs, worked for an affluent African-American family.[1]

One of the more recent caricatures that still exist in today's society is Tyler Perry's Madea character. Madea is a massive heavyset black woman who is known for her violent acts throughout the Perry films. She contributes the stereotypes about African-American women being bitter, mean, and violent towards everyday people. Perry also has another character that contributes to the stereotypes among the African-American community which is the "Crack Mother" caricature. He received a lot of backlash for regenerating this myth of black mothers. In the sitcom The House of Paynes there is a crack mother character who cannot provide for her children and she undergoes the stereotypical detoxification.[7]

Additionally, 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). Various mammy characters appeared in radio and TV shows. One prominent example was the radio and later short-lived television series 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. As a parody of this stereotype, the 1984 Frank Zappa album Thing-Fish featured characters called "mammy nuns".

In the early 20th century, the mammy character was common in many films. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her performance as "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind in 1939.[8] Common roles in American mass media seeming to be reserved for the mammy stereotype include secretaries, hospital/medical practice assistants and greasy spoon diner waitresses.

The mammy character is used in many films, novels, television shows and video games, including:

  • Mammy as played by Jennie Lee in D. W. Griffith's 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation.
  • Aunt Chloe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852
  • Aunt Jemima, portrayed by freed slave Nancy Green, 1893-1923. Following Nancy Green are a long line of Aunt Jemimas, including: Anna Robinson (1923-1951), Edith Wilson (1948-1966), Ethel Ernestine Harper (the 1950s)
  • Mammy, played by Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind, 1939.
  • Mammy Two Shoes, Tom and Jerry series
  • "Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat": the 1941 hit boogie-woogie song's animated short features many depictions of mammy figures, starting with the title card, through to the admonishment, "Look here, Mammy. That ain't no way to wash clothes! What you all need is rhythm!" to "The End" displayed across a mammy's backside.
  • Louise Beavers played a mammy, cook, slave, or servant in almost all of her film roles. The more well known are: Belle Starr (1941), Jack London (1943), Imitation of Life (1934), I Dream of Jeanie (1952) and Holiday Inn (1942)
  • Calpurnia, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960
  • Delilah, played by Virginia Capers, Big Jake, 1971
  • Belle, played by Madge Sinclair, Roots, 1977
  • Viola Watkins, played by Ruby Dee, The Golden Girls, 1990
  • Louise, played by Margo Moorer, Forrest Gump, 1994
  • Ma Soupswill, Rare, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, 2003
  • Aunt Lou, played by Cleo King, season three of the Deadwood TV series, 2006
  • Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis, The Help, 2011
  • Minny Jackson, played by Octavia Spencer, The Help, 2011
  • Constantine Jefferson, played by Cicely Tyson, The Help, 2011


  1. Mythification of the Mammy Figure
  2. Walker-Barnes (2014), p. 85-88
  3. "The Mammy Caricature". 
  4. Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly (2008). Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 3,6. ISBN 0472034014. 
  5. The Journal of Negro History
  6. From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond
  7. Carpenter, Tracy (December 1, 2012). "Construction of the Crack Mother Icon". Western Journal of Black Studies. 
  8. Haskell, Molly (2010). Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited. Icons of America. Yale University Press. pp. 213–214. ISBN 978-0-300-16437-4.
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