Reconstructing Mammy: New book planned for GWTW character

Posted on March 29, 2014

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I wish this was simply a joke, but apparently it’s not. I guess it’s best to file this under “Oh Hell Naw” or “But their hearts were in the right place” (eye-roll). Margaret Mitchell’s estate has okay’ed a book about the character of Mammy, the feisty, loyal and highly stereotypical maid from Gone With The Wind.

Hattie McDaniel in the most popular role Hollywood once had a black actress

Hattie McDaniel in the most popular role Hollywood once had for a black actress, which was resurrected in The Help via the character of Minny

 

 

Since the book is due for release this October, its been in the works for a while. Probably right after the dubious “success” of The Help. An imprint of Simon & Schuster, Atria books is the publisher.

Mammy and Minny, together at last. This image is from racismstillexisttumblr.com

Mammy and Minny, together at last. This image is from racismstillexisttumblr.com

 

The writer is Donald McCaig, known for Jacob’s Ladder and another offshoot from GWTW, “Rhett Butler’s People.” Unfortunately, the publisher and the writer may find the reading public’s taste has changed since The Help:

“The completed book, “Ruth’s Journey,” is the fictional telling of the life of one of the novel’s central characters, a house servant called Mammy who otherwise remains nameless. The story begins in 1804, when Ruth is brought from her birthplace, the French colony of Saint-Domingue that is now known as Haiti, to Savannah, Ga.”

“Mitchell was criticized for the one-dimensional nature of many African-American characters in the book, particularly Mammy, who cared for the fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. An unauthorized parody of the classic novel, “The Wind Done Gone,” published in 2001 over the objections of the Mitchell estate, was told from the perspective of a slave whose mother was Mammy.

Mr. Borland said the new book addresses those criticisms head on.

“What’s really remarkable about what Donald has done is that it’s a book that respects and honors its source material, but it also provides a necessary correction to what is one of the more troubling aspects of the book, which is how the black characters are portrayed,” Mr. Borland said.”

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/27/business/media/gone-with-the-wind-prequel-coming-in-october.html?_r=1

 

 

Okay, my first thoughts are that this is a business deal, and it has nothing to do with trying to provide a “necessary correction to what is one of the more troubling aspects of the book” as quoted in the article.

The new book will serve to generate sales for the original source material, and the estate will garner more income. But I doubt if it will gain any goodwill, because the character of Mammy is already ingrained in American society. Giving her a backstory and a name after all this time is an empty, symbolic gesture.

Mammy, much like other characters created by some white writers during segregation, served a purpose.

She was propaganda, much like the character of Prissy and the other blacks who populated the novel and film, which was a grand, sweeping love story about Scarlett O’Hara and the dashing Rhett Butler.

Mammy helped spawn figurines like these items:

 

Mammy 2.0 Image from Ferris State Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia

Mammy 2.0 Image from Ferris State Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia

 

 

 

Mammy and Scarlet figurine. Perhaps A Celia and Minny figurine will be sold by Franklin Mint

Mammy and Scarlet figurine. Perhaps A Celia and Minny figurine will be sold by Franklin Mint

 

Mammy banks for those who like to collect such things.

Mammy banks for those who like to collect such things.

 

 

Mammy in a box

Mammy in a box

 

 

 

Mammy lamp. Not sold on HSN, but popular during segregation. Image from Ferris State Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia

Mammy lamp. Not sold on HSN, but popular during segregation. Image from Ferris State Museum of Jim Crow Memorabilia

 

 

And Mammy from GWTW was an influence on ads like these:

 

Using actual African Americans to mock themselves in ads

Using actual African Americans to mock themselves in ads

 

 

 

Sanka Coffee Ad, featuring the sassy maid caricature

Sanka Coffee Ad, featuring the sassy maid caricature

 

 

Other books and movie roles made room for stereotypical black Mammies:

 

Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life, touted as "the greatest screen role ever played by a colored actress"

Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life, touted as “the greatest screen role ever played by a colored actress”

 

 

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay in Imitation of Life, the 1934 film version

Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) begging to stay in Imitation of Life, the 1934 film version

 

 

Viola Davis as Aibileen in film version of The Help and young actress as Mae Mobley

Viola Davis as Aibileen in film version of The Help and young actress as Mae Mobley

 

 

Aibileen and Minny having a ball in the kitchen, as the whitewashing of segregation via films returns

Aibileen and Minny having a ball in the kitchen, as the whitewashing of segregation via films returns

 

Viola Davis as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny in the film The Help

Viola Davis as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny in the film The Help

 

Who's afraid of the big bad "woof"

Who’s afraid of the big bad “woof”

 

 

And also, highly offensive costume jewelry:

 

Black Mammy fashion Accessories

Black Mammy fashion accessories

 

 

 

 

Also from the article: “The first two-thirds of the 416-page “Ruth’s Journey” are in the third person, and the last portion is told in Ruth’s own dialect.”

Oh joy. With the last portion told in Mammy Ruth’s own dialect, I suppose cringe worthy (but Oscar nominated) lines much like The Help’s stereotypical “frying chicken tends to make you feel better about life” and “You is kind, you is smart, you is im-po-tent” will jump off the pages.

 

Opening dialogue (highlighted in yellow) for the character of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With The Wind:

 

Mammy's book dialogue from the novel Gone With The Wind

Mammy’s book dialogue from the novel Gone With The Wind

 

It’ll be interesting to see how the book deals with Mammy’s dialogue, since she barely spoke English, just like many of the others in the original novel:

 

“Is y’all aimin’ ter go ter Mist’ Wynder’s? ‘Cause ef you is, you ain’ gwine git much supper,” said Jeems. Dey cook done died, an’ dey ain’ bought a new one. Dey got a fe’el hen’ cookie’, an’ de niggers tells me she is de wustest cook in de state.”  The slave Jeems, from Chapter One of Gone With The Wind. Here’s how he’s initially described in the book: Jeems was their body servant and, like the dogs, accompanied them everywhere.

A little further on:

Brent turned in the saddle and called to the negro groom.

“Jeems!”

“Suh?”

“You heard what we were talking to Miss Scarlett about?”

“Nawsuh, Mist’ Brent! Huccome you think Ah be spyin’ on w’ite folks ?”

“Spying, my God! You darkies know everything that goes on. Why, you liar, I saw you with my own eyes sidle round the corner of the porch and squat in the cape jessamine bush by the wall. Now, did you hear us say anything that might have made Miss Scarlett mad–or hurt her feelings ?”

Thus appealed to, Jeems gave up further pretense of not having overheard the conversation and furrowed his black brow.

“Nawsuh, Ah din’ notice y’all say anything ter mek her mad. Look ter me lak she sho glad ter see you an’ sho had missed you, an’ she cheep along happy as a bird, tell ’bout de time y’all got ter talkin’ ’bout Mist’ Ashley an’ Miss Melly Hamilton gittin” mah’ied. Den she quiet down lak a bird w’en de hawk fly ober.”

 

(c) 1936 by Macmilan Publishing Company, a division of Macmillan, Inc. Copyright renewed 1964 by Stephens Mitchell and Trust Company of Georgia as Executors of Margaret Mitchell Marsh. Copyright renewed 1964 by Stephens Mitchell.

Link: http://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/gone-with-the-wind/excerpt

 

 

 

Also, I found this article from NPR. Some of the comments . . . well, I’ll let you decide for yourself as some posters wonder bemoan political correctness here . Just a few quotes from the comments section of the article:

 

“Frankly, I’ve always considered Mammy to be the best character in the entire story, and I think fondly of the warmth, wisdom, patience, and stability she represents.”

 

“To be honest, I’ve never understood why people take such a dismal view of the “Mammy” character in “Gone With the Wind”. For starters— by modern standards she’s obese. So what? Is it an insult to make a character look the way totally normal good people on the street look?

Is it degrading to show her as a slave? News flash: before the Civil War the south had slavery. Most of the slaves were black. I don’t think the black people who lived back then would have anything to be embarrassed about if we could speak with them today . . .”

 

“Only the politically correct would think that,”Mammy”, would even need to be rescued!”

 

 

This next excerpt is from an essay by Hubert H. McAlexander for The New Georgia Encyclopedia:

 

Representations of African Americans

 

The inherent racism of the novel is more difficult to defend. Characteristic of her generation of southerners is Mitchell’s unquestioning acceptance of the essential inferiority of African Americans, whom she presents, in a few distasteful instances, in nonhuman terms. Melded with that prejudice, contradictorily, is evidence of her great respect for some members of the race. Such a bifurcated vision is the very dilemma that Mississippi author William Faulkner wrestled with his entire writing career. In the novel Mitchell merely accepts the institution of slavery and fails to recognize the strength and courage of those who rebelled against their status as slaves.

 

What she presents well is an array of portraits of an unlettered African American peasantry, ranging from the nobility, shrewdness, loyalty, and affection of Mammy to the foolishness of Prissy. Like William Shakespeare, Mitchell has her fools among all classes. No one has yet criticized her portrayal of Honey Wilkes. Margaret Mitchell was proud of the fact that she had tried to convey accurately the speech of the old African Americans of her acquaintance without resorting to the entangled dialect of Joel Chandler Harris, and she reacted against all the stock figures, white and black, of the sentimental plantation novels that preceded Gone With the Wind.

 

Mitchell is most open to criticism in the last third of the novel. The narrative drive diminishes, returning only in fits and starts. Historical background is too often telegraphed, rather than blended, into the fabric of the novel. And Mitchell appears to succumb to a nightmare vision of white female purity under attack by black bestiality only to be saved by the Ku Klux Klan. The model here, which Mitchell halfway acknowledges in a letter, is Thomas Dixon’s racist novel The Clansman (1905), made into what is often regarded as the first masterpiece of American cinema, The Birth of a Nation, in 1915—both works lying solidly behind the reemergence of the Klan in the twentieth century.

 

Mitchell’s conflicted sensibility is apparent when she has Scarlett comment about one such incident, “Probably the girl hadn’t been raped after all. Probably she’d just been frightened silly.” And she has Scarlett deliberately and foolishly expose herself to danger, against all advice, by her stubborn drive through Shantytown, where the homeless and desperate have collected. And even though the black man’s assault upon her seems closer to a robbery than a rape attempt, still by introducing the situation of the imperiled white female threatened by the powerful black man and the resulting Klan vengeance, Mitchell’s novel invites the same criticism heaped on Dixon’s work.”

 

Link: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/gone-wind-novel

 

 

So exactly who benefits from this new and improved Mammy AKA Ruth? Cause it sure won’t be black people.

Ultimately it ends up being self-serving, much like The Help was (read this post for the quick version, or this one on how The Help came to be, among a group of southern friends and the one black friend who agreed to go along. Published interviews with Kathryn Stockett, Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer reveal an early “agreement”).

Books such as The Help and Ruth’s Journey are also partly the result of misplaced liberal guilt (which somehow tends to come back to “let’s write a book!” or “let’s do a movie!” using the very stereotypes that make one’s blood boil). Or cold hard, “let’s all make some cash.”

The reason I say that this was in the works during The Help’s reign on the book charts, is because the length of time it takes to write the thing and when a major publisher ends up releasing it. The Help came out in 2009, and slowly made its way up, so this was probably green lighted around that time.

But see, The Help had the backing of all those families who fondly remembered their very own “help.” After the curiosity wears off regarding what’s in the book, exactly how will Ruth’s Journey be promoted?

 

 

I shudder to think of the taglines (and I’m being very sarcastic):

“Before “The Help” there was dear old Mammy. Now read her never before told story!”

 

Mammy wasn’t always this way:

 

Mammy from Gone With The Wind mouthing off. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for the role

Mammy from Gone With The Wind mouthing off. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for the role

 

 

See how she went from a gentle slave with dreams, to a woman who gets to put the “sass” in slavery!

 

Back in 2011 I wondered whose “voice” moviegoers would see on screen in this post:

https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/whose-voice-in-the-help/

 

Now I wonder what author Donald McCaig will do with Mammy Ruth’s “voice.” Will she be self-loathing and introverted to the point of being way too saintly and frustratingly docile like Aibileen from The Help and Delilah from Imitation of Life? Or will the reader see bits of her sharp tongued “sassiness” from GWTW in a young Ruth, large and in-charge from the get-go, with a “voice” that’s simply another loud mouthed caricature, much like Minny was in The Help, but one that’s so beloved in some writer’s minds that the caricature now represents a starting point from which Writing Black Characters 101 seems to be taught. Or will he lean towards William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize winning but demeaning and demented Nat Turner’s lyrically raw thoughts, where Nat lusts after a young white girl and shows revulsion for his own people and their plight.

Cover of the novel "The Confessions Of Nat Turner"

Cover of the novel “The Confessions Of Nat Turner”

 

 

In her book Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007 Micki McElya writes, “so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves — of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism — seem not to exist at all.”

Professor Micki McElya has this statement that I often quote:

“If we are to reckon honestly with the history and continued legacies of slavery in the United States, we must confront the terrible depths of desire for the black mammy and the way it still drags at struggles for real democracy and social justice.”

 

 

This is part of the nostalgia for characters like Aibileen, Minny, and Constantine from The Help, and now the highly unneeded steaming pile of revisionism that will be known as Ruth’s Journey

 

Unfortunately, there’s no way to properly critique books like The Help or Ruth’s Journey without reading them. So here’s hoping Donald McCaig is able to avoid stereotypes and make Ruth something other than she’s destined to become in Gone With The Wind. 

 

 

Just to show how many were convinced on the merits of recognizing black women as Mammies, here’s a scan of an actual 1922 article from the Houston Chronicle, promoting a national “Mammy Monument” in Washington DC. Note the stereotypical reasons given in the piece, such as “though her skin was black, her soul was white” in the scan of page #4. This mindset still exists today, and the only thing books like The Help and Ruth’s Journey accomplish is continuing to promote this type of offensive caricature:

 

Mammy monument  aritcle pg 1

Mammy monument article pg 1

 

 

Mammy monument pg 2

Mammy monument pg 2

 

Mammy monument pg 3

Mammy monument pg 3

 

 

 

Mammy monument pg 4

Mammy monument pg 4

 

 

For more on the history of why the black woman as Mammy keeps getting recycled, please see this post:

 

How The Help Recycles The Affection Myth

 

To be continued . . .

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