Bringing Up “Mammy”

February 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

Bringing Up “Mammy”

It is past time to bring up the issue of “mammy”—the cultural icon created in the antebellum South by slave owners looking to soften the image of slavery and give authority to their paternalistic ideal. Mammy flourished during Reconstruction and has persisted through the present. In the late19th century, she was portrayed as a faithful beloved slave—a loving, trusted, and self-sacrificing servant who took care of both black and white children on the plantation—hardly a slave at all. In the 20th century, mammy evolved into a large, soft, dark-skinned woman, often good natured, sometimes firm. She was viewed as safe and un-sexual and was often described as one of the family. Amongst other duties of housekeeping and childcare, she was likely a valued cook. « Read the rest of this entry »

I Can’t Believe She Just Said That

February 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

These are the words my mother, Mary Simms Furman, spoke in this short segment shot for the Shared History documentary. The footage, which references the descendants of the enslaved people at Woodlands Plantation who took care of my mother as a child and helped her as an adult, was not used in the final film. It was deemed too inflammatory without the proper context. The Just Like Family blog will attempt to provide this context by looking at the stereotype and mythology of the “mammy” figure that was developed during slavery but magnified in the 20th century. Many of the profiles featured in Just Like Family were written by whites who describe their caretaker in stereotypical ways: a large, older black woman, full-bosomed, patient, sometimes sassy, asexual, faithful and unthreatening. I will address some of the theories and realities of this stereotypical image in the hopes of better understanding the relationship between the adult white children and their African American caretakers.

Maids in Greenville, SC

February 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

I was surprized to find online a group of unpublished photographs by Margaret Bourke-White of African American residents in Greenville, SC, which is my hometown. 

From the internet, “In 1956 LIFE magazine dispatched reporters and photographers to the American South to explore how the emotionally and politically charged issue of segregation manifested itself at a time when the Civil Rights movement was barely in its infancy. Here, LIFE presents rare and previously unpublished pictures by the legendary Margaret Bourke-White, who shot in Greenville, South Carolina, for one segment of a monumental five-part series, “The Background of Segregation” — a segment focusing on Greenville citizens from different walks of life who wholeheartedly supported segregation.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

An African-American maid prepares a white family’s supper in Greenville, SC, 1956.

“In photographs that, at times, convey an unsettling intimacy, Bourke-White’s work opens a window on an era that, for better and for worse, helped define 20th century America. There is courage to be found in these images, and dignity, and weakness, and a cruelty that — in the guise of a patronizing benevolence — shaped the destinies of black and white America for decades to come, and echoes in our national conversation even today.”

One of the things that strikes me about the photograph is that the white family’s kitchen is quite modest.  I remember just about everyone of any economic class in Greenville had a maid.  The salaries of the black housekeepers were sinfully low .

The Health Card

February 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

In my first post to “Just Like Family,” I related a story in which my mother told me that maids had to have a health certificate to work in a white person’s home.  I scoffed at this and asked her if any of the people who worked for her had shown her a health card.   She didn’t reply. 

However,  I have some new information that suggests black women may have had to get a health card to work in a white home.  In  the 1940s, Alice Childress, an African American Southern playwright,  wrote a scene in the play, “Like One of the Family,” where the white employer demands that the protagonist Mildred, the maid, supply her with a “health card.”   Mildred retorts by insisting her employer and her family also get health certificates to prove they did not have strange white diseases, since she was working closely with them–cooking, cleaning, bathing children, doing laundry–all would put her in close contact with them. « Read the rest of this entry »

Saying Thank You

February 6, 2012 § 2 Comments

Jane Dalrymple-Hollo and Dezzie McIntosh grew up in rural north Mississippi, but in different generations.  Jane was from a well-to-do white family and Dezzie was a black domestic servant in Jane’s household throughout most of her childhood.  Their relationship deepened after Jane spent a long evening in Dezzie’s living room in December, 1999, and recorded an informal oral history in which she asked Dezzie to describe her childhood, her relationship with Blues music and  her family life. « Read the rest of this entry »

I Remember Mammy

February 3, 2012 § 7 Comments

I found this tribute online at a website called Southern_Style.  It is reminiscent of so many other tributes I’ve read.  This one is particularly lacking in awareness of what “Mammy” thought about her relationship with the author’s family and how segregation and racism affected her.   Where is the appreciation of her services?   What I’m struck with, though, is how  similar the feelings are that are revealed by the adult white children toward the beloved caregiver.  In this tribute, the author says “…Mammy became as dear to us as our grandmothers.”   With so many whites expressing their love and respect for their black caretaker, was there something about Africa American women in the 20th century that, beyond the stereotype, really did represent a pure ideal of maternal care?    Or after a model was established by white child and loving black women during slavery, did housemaids and caretakers eventually contrive their affections because that was what was expected by the white family?  How many white children were, perhaps, fooled?  I hope to explore this issue in future posts.    I would love to have your thoughts.

I REMEMBER MAMMY

Mattie Lee Martin (“Mammy”)
By one who loved her, Sharman Burson Ramsey

Thirteen year old Mattie Lee Martin took her mentally challenged older sister by the hand and led her down the rutted, red clay country road. Neither looked back. Mattie was determined her sister would not be abused again in their grandparents’ home. She’d finally accepted that her parents would never come back to get them. The road led to the town of Dothan, Alabama, and a life, Mattie Lee hoped, that would be better than the one they’d known on that god-forsaken farm. « Read the rest of this entry »

Nancy and Rosie

January 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

Nancy Smith’s mother died when she was 7. The blow was softened by Rosie White, an African American woman who was hired for childcare and as the maid in Nancy’s household. They lived in New Orleans. Nancy had two older siblings and her father traveled a great deal. Someone had to raise these children. Nancy was particularly affected by Rosie’s loving spirit and generosity. She talks about this formative relationship and Rosie’s “other life” as well as Rosie’s granddaughter who was the same age as Nancy.

Me and IT

January 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

Me and It 

by Dorothy Day Ciarlo 

At some point in life, one has to talk about certain troubling things whether anyone wants to listen or not. For me, It began in childhood and has been a burden of pain and shame. I’m thinking I’d better talk about It now, and a good place to begin is with Idabelle.  But first, let me tell a few things about my childhood. 

          Though time supposedly weakens memory, the Dickensian names of my childhood are forever there, waiting for a tug on the memory chain to come tumbling out. My schoolmates’ names all denoted something—Mary Ellen Finger, Nancy Jean Sharp, Janet Love-it, Jane Ann Cook, Uldene LongStretch, Basil Butler, to list but a handful. So, too, the places: Boil Park, where we went for picnics: Right-Sell, my elementary school, and Win-Field Methodist where my sister Peggy and I went to church every Sunday morning and evening. And the streets—Chest-er Street, Gain Street, Arch Street, Ring-o, stream out of my memory closet. But the Thing that clouded my childhood and in fact my whole life, didn’t have a name. In my own mind, I began to call it It« Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Willie Rudd,

January 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

I came across a children’s book recently that approaches some of the themes of Just Like Family but only gives a limited view of the primary character—the African American maternal figure in a little girl’s life.  The 30-page book is Dear Willie Rudd  by Libba Moore Gray published in 1993 with drawings added in 2000 by Peter M. Fiore.  From the synopsis on the back cover we learn:

 Fifty years have passed since Miss Elizabeth was a girl, but she still remembers Willie Rudd, the black housekeeper who helped raise her.  She remembers the feeling of sitting on Willie Rudd’s lap while the housekeeper sang to her.  And she remembers how Willie scrubbed the floor on her hands and knees.  What would Miss Elizabeth say to Willie Rudd if she were alive today?  She decides to write her a letter telling her how things would be different.  Now, Willie  Rudd would come in the front door—not the back.  She would ride in the front of the bus with Miss Elizabeth, and they could sit together at movies.  The two of them would have a wonderful time.  And in her heartfelt letter, Miss Elizabeth has the chance to tell Willie Rudd something she never told her while she was alive—that she loved her.

Although a lovely tribute to an important person in a little girl’s life, the author leaves much to the imagination, as if Willie only existed as Miss Elizabeth’s caretaker and housemaid.  She doesn’t comment on the child’s feelings about seeing the person she loves “scrubb[ing] the floor on her hands and knees.”  She doesn’t speculate on Willie’s family life, the hardships she likely endured, the trials of segregation, and her other encounters with white people.  It gives the impression to its audience, children, that blacks naturally take on the roll of serving white people.

“She remembered the feel of Willie’s big lap, covered with a flowered apron, the feel of Willie’s generous bosom against her cheek.  This kind of stereotype is reproduced innumerably among whites as if all black women had “generous bosoms.”  More comments on the mammy stereotype in later posts.

The book does confirm an increasing desire of whites raised by black women—that there is a wish to thank her and to tell her they loved her.   Perhaps because of the popularity of The Help, whites are returning to childhood memories to consider the important relationship—though one sided or not—with their caretakers.

Grady’s Gift

January 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

On December 1, 1999, Howell Raines, the Executive Editor of The New York Times from 2001 until he left in 2003 and contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio, published a remarkable tribute to the African American woman who raised him.  It appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I present it in its entirety.

 

“…she taught me the most valuable lesson a writer can learn, which is to try to see — honestly and down to its very center — the world in which we live.”

GRADY SHOWED UP ONE DAY at our house at 1409 Fifth Avenue West in Birmingham, and by and by she changed the way I saw the world. I was 7 when she came to iron and clean and cook for $18 a week, and she stayed for seven years. During that time everyone in our family came to accept what my father called “those great long talks” that occupied Grady and me through many a sleepy Alabama afternoon. What happened between us can be expressed in many ways, but its essence was captured by Graham Greene when he wrote that in every childhood there is a moment when a door opens and lets the future in. So this is a story about one person who opened a door and another who walked through it. « Read the rest of this entry »