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Revised: From "Mammie" to "Mama": Exploitation of Black Female Efforts Around the Civil Rights Movement

smalina's picture

From “Mammie” to “Mama”

Exploitation of Black Female Efforts Around the Civil Rights Movement


                            Fanny Lou Hamer at the Democratic Convention (1964)          Hattie McDaniel & Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind (1939)


Representing a Movement

Freedom Summer, a 2014 documentary directed by Stanley Nelson Jr., tells the story of the band of volunteers who participated in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. Through interviews and photographs with former activists, Nelson resists the dominant narrative of the Civil Rights Movement as a revolution that found success thanks only to a number of famous leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Those who left the relative safety of their day-to-day lives in other parts of the country and risked their lives in the midst of the deadly violence that characterized that Mississippi summer were invaluable to the movement. Those who involved themselves during this period of time were of many races, and many of them were white young adults, seeking a greater purpose, and hoping to achieve their vision of a better world. This representation of white people in a movement launched to improve conditions for African Americans is very much reflected in the casting of Nelson’s film—in fact, what becomes quite clear as the film progresses is that the majority of the voices presented to the audience belong to these white volunteers. Though they all name honorable, justice- and equality-oriented intentions, problematic undertones arise as some of the interviewees express what they gained from their participation in Freedom Summer. One man explains that he was the one to gain the most from his efforts, as his mind was opened to a different way of life and he developed a greater awareness of the troubles and tribulations experienced by another population.

This theme of white gain arises so frequently throughout history as a direct result of the (sometimes literally) backbreaking labors of black people. Even after the abolishment of slavery, the roles of black people in society have been consistently abused and exploited to improve conditions for white people—and as Nelson’s documentary illuminates, even in the context of a movement towards social justice. The persona of the “mama,” the black female activist role model, seems to serve as another example of this phenomenon, and in many ways mirrors the harmful racial caricature of the “mammy”—making visible the problematic nature of the mama’s exploitation at the hands of white people.


The Mammy: Exploitation in Slavery and Servitude

 The image of the “mammy,” prominent in the late 19th and early-mid 20th-century, was constructed largely through popular culture and media. 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. The 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.


The Mama: Exploitation at a Time of Reclaimed Agency

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

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).


More Harm Than Good?

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. 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. 


Complicating Agency in Interracial Dynamics

Yet, in naming these connections and examples of exploitation, it is important not to tread the same path as Nelson did in his emphasis on the role of white volunteers—even if a piece calls out the problematic nature of white involvement in the movement, this simple claim does not account for the significant agency on the part of the black leaders in the movement, many of whom were, in fact, quite intentional about the use of white volunteers as a support system.

Prominent black female leaders of the movement included Ella Baker, who had worked within the POC-led NAACP for 15 years, and Fanny Lou Hamer, who fought with the primarily African-American Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These women were committed to a freedom struggle initiated and driven by other black people, and were inspirational in the command and wisdom they demonstrated through public speeches and initiatives—not only did they toe the front lines of battle as black people, but they shattered glass ceilings within the movement as powerful women. Baker and Hamer were not of the “mama” image—and to generalize the roles of all black women in the movement in such a way would be erasing of those who fought primarily without the assistance of white people. 

At the same time, many of those who were intentionally involving white volunteers were aware of the drive to use white people for their gain—and this did not signify a lack of agency (on the contrary, it would seem to indicate quite the opposite). Ultimately, while the exploitation of black female service was in many ways reproduced from the mammy of the slavery era to the mama of the Civil Rights Movement, complex webs of agency in interracial working relationships should call our attention first and foremost to the black women who fought—both the mamas, and those like Baker and Hamer, who made immense strides despite immeasurable risk.


Works Cited

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.

1964. Rosa Parks and Take Stock, Atlanta, GA. The Image Works. Comp. George Ballis. Web. 2 Dec. 2015


jschlosser's picture

Your essay reminds me of the dispute that took place within SNCC leadership prior to Freedom Summer. Much of this dispute focused on whether or not whites should be included in the voter registration effort precisely for the reasons you mentino here. There was fear that whites would take credit while also taking over leadership roles. Bob Moses, however, advocated to bring whites because it would turn the local SNCC struggle into a national issue and inspire larger scale change. I think he turned out to be right.

I'm also struck by parallels between your analysis and that of Melissa Harris-Perry in her book Sister Citizen. She studied stereotypes and destructive perceptions around black women while also suggesting Michelle Obama offers a new path. Here's a link to a talk she gave on the book at Berkeley: