Aunt Jemima Ain’t the Only Mammy: Modern Mammies
What’s currently trending on Twitter is Aunt Jemima, you know, like the branded pancakes and syrup.
2020 is weird enough, but why in the world would millions of people be buzzing about a breakfast food brand? Because after 130 years as a profitable brand, consumers are finally realizing that the illustrated character who fronts Aunt Jemima is actually a racist interpretation of a black woman.
Aunt Jemima was originally formed in the image of the black mammy and that realization has consumers outraged. Now the brand has been forced to repackage.
What’s more surprising to me is why are people just figuring this out? I have the advantage of being old on my side – I guess – but, I distinctively remember when the picture on pancake mix and syrup illustrated a black slave character with her hair tied up, a huge smiling mouth, and an apron. I also remember when she got a facelift and became a less offensive looking black lady.
The mammy is not a new concept. My mother for whatever reason (don’t ask) use to collect Mammy figurines in the early 1990’s.
In this post I’d like to explore what a “mammy” actually is and also touch on how mammy imagery is still sneaking into mainstream pop culture today.
What’s a mammy and Why does she exist?
A mammy, is considered a middle-aged obese black slave woman. The black mammy watches the white children on the plantation and nurses them with her own huge breasts. She is loyal to her white mistress and ready to jump at master’s every beck and call.
The mammy is very darkly melanated with huge bulging eyes, a big smiling face, a large rear-end, and always wears her hair tied up and a white apron strung around her giggling waist. Mammy is constantly happy, smiling, and full of love for her beloved “white folks”.
The joy of her life is tending to white babies and most of all cooking! Our beloved mammy can cook up the best comfort foods of the South! Juicy fried chicken, fresh buttery biscuits, cold iced tea, hot cheesy girts, and most importantly Saturday morning pancakes dripping with golden sweet maple syrup. Yum!
The mammy is full of love and understanding and when she wraps you in a big warm hug, as your head rests on those big soft breasts- you smell butter, sugar, and finally comprehend real joy and love.
During the heat of slavery in America was the mammy real? The short answer is no. Yes, there were black slave women who were forced to cook, clean, take care of white children, suckle those children at their own breasts, and take care of their white mistress. However, the image of a literal mammy who takes pleasure in being a slave and serves her master with adoration and joy is a stretch. The mammy image was created to romanticize the idea of slavery and the “good old south”.
Old companies wanted consumers to romanticize an era of porch swings, honeysuckle, antebellum homes, sprawling plantation estates and of course slaves for product sales. They used mammy and Uncle Tom (a story for another time) to do this bidding.
There was something sweeter about a person willingly loving their master and his family than the hard truth of lynching, beatings, and forced imprisonment.
The Aunt Jemima brand sprang from this idea of the fictionally mammy. At one point there was a woman who dressed up like Aunt Jemima and gave out recipes while telling stories of the good ole south – a hired sort of mascot for the brand. Hired solely to push more product while prostituting the idea of a gentle south.
Today people are fired up and angry with Quaker Oats for being based on such negative imagery, but erasing Aunt Jemima will not eradicate the mammy completely from culture.
As you may or may not know, Hollywood excels at type-casting black actors and actresses and deeply rooted and hidden in plain sight is the mammy.
Let’s explore some contemporary examples of mammy on your T.V screen.
Modern Mammies in Television
If you read my article about colorism, you understand at the genesis of television, black women were only allocated two roles- bed-wench or maid/mammy.
The mammy’s purpose on television was similar to what it was in advertisement, making black women appear like non-human bundles of love, who cooked and cared for white people.
The mammy dehumanized the black woman and presented her as a husbandless, jolly, caricature of a human being.
The first mammies on television were obviously more slave-like such as Hattie McDaniel’s portal of Beulah. McDaniel’s Beulah was obviously the depiction of the original Aunt Jemima in screen format.
However, according to the documentary TV in Black: The First Fifty Years things started changing in the late 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement. Blatant racism died down on television with the coming of Flip Wilson and Rick Foxx in the 1970’s, but the Mammy figure still existed just in a different way.
By the 1990’s, the mammy made a firm come back, but this time she didn’t wear a headwrap and an apron.
The 1990’s – 2020’s mammy is a nurturing sometimes overweight black woman who is always referring to everyone as “Honey” very sassily. She may not be in charge of running a white family, but the modern mammy is still a comforting stereotype to placate the white masses.
Below is a list of five of the “secret mammies” hiding in plain sight in the last 20 or so years:
1. Maureen– In the 1990’s the “Maureen” was always outing her husband for his digestive issues in the Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia commercials. She gave us all a good laugh, but indeed was a depiction of a “hidden” mammy. Her character was created for a white audience and the brand used a black woman to discuss embarrassing issues to protect a white woman from such a ‘dirty’ image.
2. The Pin-Sol Lady- From the 1990’s until this very day, Pine-Sol is synonymous with this famous hidden mammy. Of course, The Pin-Sol Lady knows all about cleaning because what mammy wouldn’t?
And who could forget her sassy catch phrase, “Now that’s the power of Pine-Sol, Baby.” Shame on you, Clorox Company.
3. Mother Love– In the late 1990s-2000, there was a syndicated talk show called Forgive or Forget. The show featured Jerry Springer like drama, but the host was a black woman called Mother Love. The show ended with the guests deciding to either forgive or forget their personal drama that was brought to the show.
Mother Love, acting as secret mammy, would often help squash the beef between her mostly white guests then encourage forgiveness with a big ole church hug. Similar to Beulah before her, Mother Love was forever faithful to her white guests and always ready to help with endless joy and compassion.
4. The Popeye’s Chicken Lady– Annie, the lady from the Popeye’s Chicken commercials ironically looks like the updated version of Aunt Jemima- red lips, red shirt, and forever in an apron. And guess what? The poor thing is always in the kitchen cooking up black people’s stereotypical favorite food- fried chicken. Her character’s name is Annie, which is a classic slave’s name.
She’s warm, perpetually smiling and constantly referring to her audience as “honey”. Most offensive? Popeye’s Chicken which is catered to African American costumers with it’s Southern Louisiana Creole flair, is tragically white owned.
5. Mammy Two Shoes- Though this character is much older than 20 or 30 years old, I feel she is relevant. At this point in history, four or more generations grew up with her, including myself.
Her name is Mammy Two Shoes and if you have ever seen an episode of the cartoon Tom and Jerry, you have at least heard her. Though her face was rarely revealed, we saw her feet, heard her antics and knew that she was a mammy.
In Short (Stack, that is. Pun intended)
Though this list is short, there have been decades of mammy portrayals seething into pop culture, poisoning the African American’s image of itself.
Though I am somewhat pleased that people are demolishing harmful imagines like Aunt Jemima, understand that there is a lot more work to do before the mammy archetype is totally deceased.
Maybe Aunt Jemima’s fall will be the catalyst for truly substantive change in Hollywood as well.