“One Man’s Mammy is another Man’s Mother”
That quotation is from a review of the movie The Help by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Wesley Morris, who writes for the Boston Globe.
I thought the phrase was so good and on point, that I hope Mr. Morris doesn’t mind me using it for this post.
The Mammy, or the black Mammy is a stereotype so beloved in American history that her origin is rarely chronicled or disputed (but it will be later on in this post).
“When Aunt Jemima beamed at Americans from the pancake mix box on grocery shelves, many felt reassured by her broad smile that she and her product were dependable. She was everyone’s mammy, the faithful slave who was content to cook and care for whites, no matter how grueling the labor, because she loved them. This far-reaching image of the nurturing black mother exercises a tenacious hold on the American imagination.
Micki McElya examines why we cling to mammy. She argues that the figure of the loyal slave has played a powerful role in modern American politics and culture. Loving, hating, pitying, or pining for mammy became a way for Americans to make sense of shifting economic, social, and racial realities. Assertions of black people’s contentment with servitude alleviated white fears while reinforcing racial hierarchy. African American resistance to this notion was varied but often placed new constraints on black women.
McElya’s stories of faithful slaves expose the power and reach of the myth, not only in popular advertising, films, and literature about the South, but also in national monument proposals, child custody cases, white women’s minstrelsy, New Negro activism, anti-lynching campaigns, and the civil rights movement. The color line and the vision of interracial motherly affection that helped maintain it have persisted into the twenty-first century. If we are to reckon with the continuing legacy of slavery in the United States, McElya argues, we must confront the depths of our desire for mammy and recognize its full racial implications.”
How misguided can it be to tell black mothers that they’re only appreciated because they knew to put white children first, and yet their offspring hold no such worth? At least not enough to be cast as either love interests or main protagonists in books or movies, in this (supposed) new post racial society.
The “Beloved Black Mammy” who is revered by many in both film and literature, is a character whose traits are still used to color minority side kicks, best friends, etc. They are cast most often as the loyal, know it all (black girl/woman full of sage advice) sassy, loud, neck rolling, hands on hips caricature who’s either enlisted to provide comedy or physical security. And most often they’re cast using darker hued black actresses, sometimes heavy set, but full of urban vibrato. You will find them not just in works created by white authors, but also in books by minorities. However their origin remains in the bossy, quip spouting antics of caretakers known as “Mammies.”
There seems to be a disconnect when crafting minority, or for the purpose of this blog post, black characters. The Mammy caricature is beloved because she serves a purpose. She’s used most often to guide a white character to maturity, gives love unconditionally, and is a “credit to her race.”
This character is most often portrayed as older, especially if they watch over a younger protagonist. But what of the younger black character?
If the older black character, most often in a capacity of a surrogate mother is so beloved, then why are her children most often missing or maligned in literature and film?
Why does it seem to be such a chore for some writers to insert a younger black character in books, while tamping down on much of the “Mammyness” which is so easy to imbue these characters with?
I don’t have the answers. But I do know that there was an excellent article that came out this week, referenced by an equally excellent blog post by author Sarah Ockler.
Here’s an excerpt from the Atlantic article by Jen Doll for The Atlantic:
The Ongoing problem of race in Y.A.
“ . . . Young adulthood is, intrinsically, a period of tension. On the one hand young adults have an all-consuming need to belong. But on the other, they are also inherently solipsistic, regarding themselves as being unique, which – for them — is not cause for celebration but, rather, for despair. For to be unique is to be unlike one’s peers, to be “other,” in fact. And to be “other” is to not belong but, instead, to be outcast. Thus, to see oneself in the pages of a young adult book is to receive the reassurance that one is not alone after all, not other, not alien but, instead, a viable part of a larger community of beings who share a common humanity.
As [Marc] Aronson said, “in Y.A., you’re trying to speak directly to the reader, for the reader to feel that jolt, that impact, that’s me.” Myers shared the story of an 8-year-old girl who came up to him praising his picture book about a dog that plays the blues. “I said, ‘You like the blues?’” he told us. “She said no. I said, ‘You like dogs?’ She said no. I said, ‘What did you like?’ She said, it looks like me.’ If you have a black kid on the cover, black kids will pick it up faster.”
The flip side of this is a brutal one: What does it mean when kids don’t see themselves on, or in, the books intended for them? As Myers told us, “I was asked by some teachers, ‘What’s the effect of video games on reading?’ At first I was thinking it’s not that much, but a video game will give you more self-esteem than a book [especially a book that you don't see yourself in], so you go for the video games. Air Jordans will give you even more esteem. At 13 or 14, you’ve assessed yourself. You know if you’re good-looking, you know if you’re hip. So many black kids are looking at themselves and saying, ‘I ain’t much,” he said. “This is why you need diversity.”
Building upon this theme, author Sarah Ockler wrote a thought-provoking blog post:
Race in YA lit: Wake up and Smell the coffee colored skin white authors
“. . . Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean any of the following:
- Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.
- Slotting in a random person of color for no other reason than to break up the whiteness (especially if you’re writing about a place that is mostly white. Like, a Rod Stewart concert, or maybe a deer hunt).
- Sneaking in a few non-white celebrity guest appearances on a poster, an iPod, or a character’s favorite TV show. I mean, I love Fresh Prince as much as anyone, because Parents Just Don’t Understand, but no—that doesn’t count.
- Including a non-white character whose only real difference from the white characters is the color of his skin and/or his snappy catch phrases. Word!
- Conducting a find-and-replace in Word to change Breanna and Chad to Belicia and Chen. CTRL+F what?
- Putting a sushi or taco bar in the school cafeteria. Which is one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time, but usually isn’t.
Diversity in fiction isn’t about tokenism, filling up imaginary “affirmative fiction” quotas, or embarking on a PC quest to be “inclusive.” It’s about respecting our readers. “
Another insightful post on the lack of diversity in YA works was written by Elizabeth Bluemle in 2010:
The Elephant in The Room
by Elizabth Bluemle
Publishers, how ivory are thy towers? According to statistics—not to mention a quick glance around any trade show floor—pretty shockingly ivory, maybe along the lines of 98%. The number of publishing, editorial, art direction, sales and marketing professionals of color in our field is tiny, and that’s not good for anybody. This discrepancy between the real world and the publishing world limits the range of books published, the intellectual scope of discussion, and—for the bottom-liners among us—greatly stunts the potential market.
The truth: we in the book trade have fallen shamefully behind our own culture, and our own times. We can remedy that with open dialogue, new paradigms, and concerted effort. And—we have to remedy it. When adults shout racial epithets at our country’s elected leaders, when bullied children are hanging themselves out of despair and shame, when children’s faces in art murals on the sides of schools are criticized for being “too dark,” when racism is still alive and vicious in this country, we can’t politely avert our eyes.
It is our responsibility—as people who create, produce, and distribute the lion’s share of books that reach and teach and entertain children—it is our highest calling to provide written, illustrated worlds that embrace and prioritize all children, books that resemble the playgrounds and classrooms and homes of this country and the rest of the world. And in order to do that, we must open the gates of our publishing houses to a greater variety of voices and cast aside outdated assumptions of what people will or won’t want to read, will or won’t want to edit or publish or sell . . .
In keeping with the title of this post, why is it even when younger black characters are inserted, some unfortunately default into stereotype? Look at what happens in The Help.
Both Mae Mobley and Kindra are youngsters. Mae Mobley is two when the novel begins, and Kindra is five. And while Mae Mobley is sweet and precocious, look at how the characters are described by Aibileen, who vies with Constantine as the most compassionate individual in the novel:
Mae Mobley two years old. She got big brown eyes and honey-colored curls. But the bald spot in the back of her hair kind of throw things off. She get the same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she worried, like her mama. They kind of favor except Mae Mobley so fat. She ain’t gone be no beauty queen. I think it bother Miss Leefolt, but Mae Mobley my special baby. (Aiblieen, Pg 4)
I say, “Aibileen”
She say, “Aib-ee.”
I say, “Love.”
She say, “Love.”
I say, “Mae Mobley.” (Aibileen, Pg 5)
“Baby girl, she looking at the door her daddy just slammed, she looking at her mama frowning down at her. My baby, she swallowing it back, like she trying real hard not to cry.
I rush past Miss Leefolt, pick Baby Girl up. I whisper, “Let’s go on in the living room and play with the talking toy. What that donkey say?” (Aibileen, pg 15)
And here’s how Aibileen views the resident villian of the novel, Hilly Holbrook’s children:
Heather, Miss Hilly’s girl, she pretty cute. Heather got dark, shiny curls all over her head and some little freckles, and she real talkative. One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children. About every five minutes, she kiss Will on the head. Or she ask Heather, is she having fun? Or come here and give Mama a hug. Always telling her she the most beautiful girl in the world. And Heather love her momma too. She look at Miss Hilly like she looking up at the Statue a Liberty. That kind a love always make me want a cry. Even when it going to Miss Hilly. Cause it make me think about Treeloree, how much he love me. I appreciate a child adoring they mama. (Pg 184)
Now look at how the author has Aibileen turn judgmental at of all people, her best friend Minny’s daughter, a child who witnesses the physical abuse of her mother on almost a daily basis. Note that Aibileen never calls Kindra “cute” or thinks to offer her assistance, or either to offer the type of motherly affective she does with Mae Mobley (items in bold are my doing):
As usual, Minny’s house be like a chicken coop on fire. Minny be hollering, things be flinging around, all the kids squawking. I see the first hint a Minny’s belly under her dress and I’m grateful she finally showing. Leroy, he don’t hit Minny when she pregnant. And Minny know this so I spec they’s gone be a lot more babies after this one.
“Kindra! Get your butt off that floor!” Minny holler. “Them beans better be hot when your daddy wakes up!”
Kindra – she seven now- she sass-walk her way to the stove with her bottom sticking out and her nose up in the air. Pans go banging all over the place. “Why I got to do dinner? It’s Sugar’s turn!”
“Cause Sugar at Miss Celia’s and you want a live to see third grade.”
Benny come in and squeeze me round the middle. He grin and show me the tooth he got missing, then run off.
“Kindra, turn that flame down fore you burn the house down!”
“We better go Minny,” I say, cause this could go on all night. “We gone be late.”
Minny look at her watch. Shake her head. “Why Sugar ain’t home yet? Miss Celia ain’t never kept me this late.”
Last week, Minny started bringing Sugar to work. She getting her trained for when Minny have her baby and Sugar gone have to fill in for her. Tonight Miss Celia ask Sugar to work late, say she drive her home.
“Kindra, I don’t want a see so much as a bean setting in that sink when I get back, Clean up good now.” Minny give her a hug. “Benny, go tell Daddy he better get his fool self out a that bed.”
“Awww, Mama why I-”
“Go on, be brave. Just don’t stand too close when he come to.”
We make it out the door and down to the street fore we hear Leroy hollering at Benny for waking him up. I walk faster so she don’t go back and give Leroy what he good for.
“Glad we going to church tonight,” Minny sigh. We round Farish Street, start up the steps. “Give me a hour not thnking about it all.” (Pgs 396-397)
For more on the unequal treatment of the children in The Help, see this post:
One of the most well known and controversial younger characters in American fiction is Topsy, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
“MANY years ago, when negroes were slaves and were bought and sold the same as horses, cows, chickens or ducks, Mr. Augustine St. Clare, while sauntering about the market place, came upon the blackest little pickaninny girl he had ever seen. She was eight or nine years old, and, besides being very black, had round shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, and wooly hair braided into little tails, which stuck out in every direction. She was dressed in a filthy, ragged garment and was quite the most woebegone little darkey ever seen by Mr. St. Clare. Perhaps in a spirit of compassion and partly as a joke he bought her and took her home. Her name was Topsy, and when children are old enough they may read all about her in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book that had much to do with freeing the slaves; a sad, sad story, indeed; as sad as Topsy, ignorant and care-free, was joyful and mischievous.
The very sight of the scrawny black girl caused Miss Ophelia, Mr. St. Clare’s cousin, to throw up her hands in amazement.
“What is it!” she exclaimed.
“I’ve made a purchase for you,” said he, with a grin, looking first at Topsy, whose eyes were bulging wide open at the sight of the fine furniture, and then at his cousin, who had folded her hands in despair.
“How old are you, Topsy?” she [Miss Orphelia] asked, kindly.
“Dunno, missis,” said Topsy, showing all her white teeth.
“Didn’t anybody ever tell you? Who was your mother?”
“Nevah had none!” answered the child with another grin.
“Never had a mother? Why, Topsy, what do you mean? Where were you born?”
“Nevah was born!” replied the little imp, still grinning, and all the questions
The artistic rendering photo for Topsy and Eva came from this site http://stephanieanncrawford.wordpress.com/2011/04/07/topsy-and-eva-the-duo/ with accompanying citations. Stephanie Crawford’s indepth observations on the roles women play in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are worth reading.
Unfortunately, some of the best loved and well known younger black characters in fiction are also stereotypes such as Sambo from Little Black Sambo and the children from The Three Golliwogs
For more on these “Beloved Classics” see this post:
In modern literature author Suzanne Collins at least created the multiethnic? heroine Katniss, of her Hunger Games Trilogy. However casting the lead actress became a source of controversy when a character with dark hair and olive skin became a blonde dyed brunette with a deep tan. Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance was in Winter’s Bone. See the entire article here:
The Hunger Games film was a massive hit, but not without a very nasty bit of bigotry when some complained about black actors being cast as characters in the film (guess they failed to note that in the book, Rue wasn’t described as being a little white girl. The book says Rue has ”bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin” (pg 120, Chapter Seven) See the full story here (if there was this much ugliness over Rue being black, imagine the uproar if a minority had landed the lead role):
Jezebel.com writer Dondai Stewart first broke the story, complete with screenshots:
Other news outlets swiftly followed. Here’s an article from US magazine:
[Amandla] Stenberg and costar Dayo Okeniyi (who played District 11′s Thresh) were shockingly attacked on Twitter over The Hunger Games‘ opening weekend. While both Rue and Thresh are described as having “dark brown skin” in the book, some clueless fans objected that both Stenberg and Okeniyi are black.
One bigoted fan complained, “Why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie.”
Tweeted another: “Why did the producer make all the good characters black?”
Several tweeters even used the “N” word decrying the casting of the two stars.
Through his rep, actor Okeniyi had no comment about the controversy.
This post is still in development . . .