From “Mammy” to “Mama”:
Black Female Service Before, During and After the Civil Rights Movement
Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, black woman fought tirelessly to have their identities recognized and respected on multiple levels—both within the movement, as women, and outside of it, as people of color. Not infrequently, these women served as strong leaders of their factions, utilizing the very skills they had been trained to have under the weight of their oppression; as Sara Evans writes in her book Personal Politics, “In general women were better trained in the interpersonal skills that good organizing required—empathy, listening, warmth, and non competitiveness in personal relationships” (Evans 140). Not surprisingly, the correlation of these qualities with the expectations tied to motherhood led many prominent black women to be recognized as “mothers” within the movement. The influx in female leadership within the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to the image of the “mama,” which Evans summarizes as “a woman who recognizes and names her own oppression and then learns to stand up for herself, breaking through patterns of passivity and learning new self-respect in the process” (148). These women took on maternal qualities through their status as role models, frequently for young white women eager to discover their own agency through participation in the struggle for racial equality. For white women, black women “became ‘mamas’ in the sense of being substitute mother figures, new models of womanhood” (53). The black women fighting for their equality on many levels defied conventional notions of femininity and refused, through their insistence upon action, the social norms that had historically confined them to the domestic sphere. This new status seemed a far cry from the image of the “mammie,” the racial caricature so prominent in the late 19th and early-mid 20th century. “Mammies” were characters constructed around maids or nannies, and their lives were frequently devoted to the upbringing of the children of the white families whom they served. Certainly, the black women fighting for equality had come a long way from the imprisoning stereotype of the mammy, and their liberation from this caricature was the very thing that defined them as role models to younger women. Ultimately, though, while the black women at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement activated a notable shift from working within a system of oppression, to fighting that system, the transfer in roles from “mammy” to “mama” marked the inescapable truth that their labor was exploited in service of white women and their development—until, at last, white women were pushed aside and the agency of black women within the movement was reclaimed.
The image of the mammy was constructed largely through popular culture and media—appearing in films, television shows, and advertisements of all kinds. Like the popular caricature of “Uncle Tom,” the image of the mammy was one of a black woman who was content with her servitude—even overjoyed to be doing the work she had been given. As Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University writes, “The slavery-era mammy did not want to be free. She was too busy serving as surrogate mother/grandmother to white families” (Pilgrim 2000). Understandably, this stereotype was an oppressive one on many levels—both for the black women who were expected to uphold a positive attitude and loyalty in their work, and for the black female actors who were pushed to “fit the part,” often forced to gain weight or wear padding in roles so as to promote the docile mammy image in media. Mammy characters in media included Aunt Delilah in the film Imitation of Life (1927), Beulah in the television show Beulah (1950-1953), and Aunt Jemima of the popular food brand of the same name. All were good-humored, loveable characters who were undyingly loyal to the families they served.
In many films, such as Gone With The Wind (1939), the presence of the mammy character was portrayed as essential to the development and protection of the young female lead. Young, white, female characters coming into their femininity and womanhood in these films were frequently not tended to by biological mothers, and relied on black female slaves as emotional support systems, holding up their innocence.
This image of popular black actress Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind is a familiar one—standing behind white female lead Vivian Leigh, she watches out for her but is given no consideration in return, dressing her, and here even physically supporting Leigh as she grows and develops throughout the film. Her very existence is in service of the white woman, as was true for so many black female maids and nannies in the time of slavery and afterwards.
One significant difference, and notable improvement, between the caricatures of the “mammy” and the “mama” was that the mama was not expected to abandon her black identity, as the mammy had been. A large part of the liberation that occurred in the shift between these images was a result of this—a mama, by definition, was strong-willed and claimed all parts of her identity with pride. A mammy, on the other hand, had been asked to center her life around her white family to the point where her own identity as a black woman was erased (at the same time as she was severely oppressed because of it). As Dr. Pilgrim writes of the mammy character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Aunt Chloe was nurturing and protective of ‘her’ white family, but less caring toward her own children” (Pilgrim 2000). Fitting the “mammy” role required caring so much about the raising of white children that ones own identity, culture, and family were ignorable—this sacrifice is noticeably absent in the formation of the “mama” image.
The image of the “mama” was developed during the 1960s, as young white women began to involve themselves in the Civil Rights Movement and sought role models. Even during the period of slavery, many white women had claimed to identify strongly with female slaves, pursuing a relationship in the name of their shared womanhood. This relationship was often framed in familial terms. As one of the Grimke sisters expressed, “They [the female slaves] are our countrywomen—they are our sisters; and to us as women, they have a right to look for sympathy with their sorrows, and effort and prayer for their rescue” (Grimke, qtd. in Evans, 26). However, this support for the liberation of black women had inherent elements that were problematic on a basic level. While the “mama” image was one of a strong, empowered black woman “who can pick more cotton, slop more pigs, plow more ground, chop more wood, and do a hundred more things better than the best farmer in the area,” stories of their empowerment were all too often used purely as fodder for white women to stand up and nudge black women out of the limelight (Sherrod, qtd. in Evans, 51-52). As Evans explains:
In the ensuing search for others to emulate, these determined but uprooted young southern white women turned again and again to the examples of black women. There they found models that shattered cultural images of appropriate “female” behavior. “For the first time,” according to Dorothy Dawson Burlage, “I had role models I could really respect” (51).
While white women looking for leadership in black women might have demonstrated a respect for their lived experience, on the contrary, their involvement in the movement through the naming of black women as role models frequently proved harmful, and in many ways ended up mirroring the relationship between the “mammy” and her white female dependent—though it did so in drastically different circumstances. One example of this is the role of sexuality in both relationships. While “mammy” characters were desexualized in media (of course, as their sole purpose was to care for their white “children”), strong, black women during the Civil Rights Movement were again stripped of their sexuality by white women who more closely adhered to conventional ideals of femininity. As Evans writes:
Deeply resentful of the attraction of white women to black men, they began to search for definitions of femininity that included blackness. Robinson herself hated white women for a period of years when she realized that they represented a cultural ideal of beauty and “femininity” which by inference defined black women as ugly and unwomanly (88).
And as white women began to feel the presence of oppressive gender roles within the movement, they proved all too comfortable with transferring the responsibility of resistance to the black women who were supposedly their “sisters.” When Casey Hayden, Mary King, and Mary Varela chose to put together a SNCC “position paper,” outlining their frustrations, “they debated whether to sign it, but concluded that they ‘wouldn’t want it to be known at that point that [they were] writing such a thing’” (85-86). Ultimately, “speculation of the authorship of the paper on women centered on black women” (87). In this way, black women were implicated in a debate around gender roles that some of them had not even chosen to enter—and again, like the character of the “mammy,” they were forced to support the white women in their lives who had chosen to “stand up for themselves” in a cowardly way.
It was not long before this unjust dependence turned into conflict; as Evans explains, “The anger of black women toward white women was only one element of the rising spirit of black nationalism” (89). This discontent had led black women to reconsider the place of white women in a movement that, at its heart, had nothing to do with white women. The response of many white women, frustrated and saddened by this shift in tactic, only proved the notion that they had been too dependent on black women to pave a way and take the fall for white women and their actions. As Mary King expressed, “I was most affected by the way that the black women turned against me. That hurt more than the guys. But it had been there, you know. You could see it coming…” (King, qtd. in Evans, 98). At last, by pushing away white involvement, black women began to avoid the dangerous relationship that had been perpetuated since slavery—one in which their own struggles and attempts at growth and development were overshadowed by the white woman’s, whom they were expected—and frequently forced—to support like a mother.
- Where do we see evidence (in media, recent history, current events, etc.) of black women’s roles as still in service of white women’s growth and development?
- Where do we see sexuality and sexual agency playing a role in this conversation? How might the hypersexualization of black women in popular culture today play into this?
- What is the relationship between the assertive and empowered “mama” of the Civil Rights Movement and the harmful, contemporary stereotype of the “angry black woman?”
Evans, Sara. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Print.
HATTIE MCDANIEL & VIVIAN LEIGH IN 1939’S “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Beyond Vera Stark: Hollywood’s Forgotten History of African American Actresses*. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Pilgrim, David. “The Mammy Caricature.” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University, Oct. 2000. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.