"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Friday, August 12, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Aunt Jemima, and "The Help"

"Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one." ~ Hattie McDaniel (Mammy in Gone With the Wind)

Viola Davis, The Help
Set in 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi, the newly-released film The Help focuses on relationships between two African American maids and the white women they work for. Although almost all those who commentered agree that it is well-done with outstanding acting, a number of them -- most notably Melissa Harris-Perry and The Association of Black Women Historians -- are deeply disturbed by the shallowness of the historical context. In addition to her remarks on MSNBCs "The Last Word", Harris-Perry tweeted that "Skeeter's date got the same amount of screen time as Medgar Ever's assassination". The ABWH says:
"During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities  limited black women's employment opportunities.  Up to 90 per cent of working black women  in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes.  The Help’s representation of these  women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy—a mythical stereotype of black women who  were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families.  Portrayed as asexual,  loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America  to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where  employers routinely exploited them.  The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling  because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to  clean the White House rather than reside in it."
Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind
Hollywood's Mammy stereotype began in 1915 with D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and is most visible in Hattie McDaniel's Oscar-winning role in Gone With the Wind. Another portrayal was by Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life, Beavers' character sharing a family pancake recipe with her boss (Claudette Colbert) who expanded it into a successful business. Beavers also appeared in maid roles on television, and was one of the four women who starred in the title role of Beulah.

Before motion pictures, the Mammy figure appeared in print with Aunt Chloe in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) described this way:
"A round, black, shiny face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with the whites of eggs, like one of her own tea rusks. Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment from under a well-starched checkered turban, bearing on it; however, if we must confess it, a little of that tinge of self-consciousness which becomes the first cook of the neighborhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be."
Advertising has brought many other examples throughout the years, with the most long-lasting being Aunt Jemima. The pancake mix was first marketed in 1889, coming to national attention with an exhibition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair featuring Nancy Green, who was born into slavery in 1834, portraying Aunt Jemima, cooking pancakes and telling idyllic stories about the Old South. Green continued to make appearances throughout the country until her death in 1923, and the brand soon became one of the most popular and trusted symbols in America.  It was sold to Quaker Oats in 1926.

In an excellent overview of the Mammy stereotype, the Jim Crow Museum describes "Commercial Mammies":
"The mainstreaming of Mammy was primarily, but not exclusively, the result of the fledgling advertising industry. The mammy image was used to sell almost any household item, especially breakfast foods, detergents, planters, ashtrays, sewing accessories, and beverages. As early as 1875, Aunt Sally, a Mammy image, appeared on cans of baking powder. Later, different Mammy images appeared on Luzianne coffee and cleaners, Fun to Wash detergent, Aunt Dinah molasses, and other products. Mammy represented wholesomeness. You can trust the mammy pitchwoman."
Aunt Jemima appeared at the peak of the Jim Crow era near the time that Plessy v. Ferguson maintained the status quo of "separate but equal". Gone With the Wind was released just before World War II labor shortages and opportunities in the military opened new areas of employment for African Americans. This is not an image that needs to be continued into the 21st century.

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