BORN IN SLAVERY AND RAISED IN ITS PAINFUL AFTERMATH TO BECOME ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL AMERICAN ICONS, SHE HAS BEEN MADE TO ENCOMPASS LOVE AND GUILT AND RIDICULE AND WORSHIP — AND STILL SHE LIVES ON
On Highway 61, just outside of Natchez, Mississippi, stands Mammy’s Cupboard, a thirty-foot-high concrete figure of a black woman. For years she was a famous landmark, staring with electric eyes from beneath a pillbox cap, wearing earrings made of horseshoes, and holding a tray. Under Mammy’s red brick skirts, punched with arched windows, Mrs. Henry Gaude operated a small restaurant, its dining room supported inside with cypress beams recovered from a cotton-gin house. Gaude catered to visitors drawn by the Natchez Pilgrimage of Homes—a tour of the town’s grand old houses and an effective celebration of the plantation myth. Edward Weston photographed the place, whitewashed, in 1941; later the familiar round blue sign of the old Bell system stood at the door and out front were three Shell gas pumps, one white, one yellow, and one sky blue.
Mammy’s Cupboard is an informal monument to one of the most problematic and profound icons of American culture: Mammy. She is a character as powerfully imprinted as the English nanny, a psychological, social, commercial, and racist stereotype who looms large in the American commedia dell’arte of legend and literature—Southern earth mother, source of nutrition, wisdom, comfort, and discipline, cook, adviser, mediator. In such personifications as theater’s Ma Rainey and television’s Beulah, in literature and film, she remains in myth and memory the most positive and yet most dangerous of all racist stereotypes. Sambo is no longer acceptable, but Aunt Jemima remains on the pancake-mix box, repeatedly updated, a shiny happy face.
The strangest turn in Mammy’s biography, however, is that she should be so much in demand today, when the enforcers of political correctness patrol our culture and a rising tide of scholarly and popular interest in heroic black women from Harriet Tubman to Marian Wright Edelman has swept the country. While bookstores are full of reissues of Sojourner Truth and Zora Neale Hurston, collectors of Mammy cookie jars, postcards, and packaging have become more numerous and more fervent (see “Collecting Mammy,” page 86). Odder still is that the two groups overlap.
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