Black Women's History: From Mammy to Michelle Obama

Nancy Green, aka ‘Aunt Jemima’ and Michelle Obama

(RTNS)–Mammy and first lady Michelle Obama may seem like an odd pairing – two figures that couldn’t be more different, some might say. One being a Princeton University and Harvard Law School alumna; the other a symbol of joyful servility, a stereotype used to justify slavery.
At first blush, just the consideration of the two might seem to indicate that perceptions of African-American women have come a long way and evolved for the better. But how much progress has actually been made relative to perceptions about African-American women?
March annually is observed as Women’s History Month. And with scholars such as syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux noting that, “It pains me to watch Black Women’s History so swallowed that we are almost invisible,” The New Tri-State Defender decided to probe the stereotypes and perceptions.
As a point of reference, let’s start with Julian Abagond of, who writes that there are three main stereotypes of African-American women that have been around for hundreds of years:
1. Mammy – “the Aunt Jemima Black woman. She is fat…she is happy with her life of faithful service to White people. She smiles and laughs. Maybe too much. She has a good heart, but is not…bright or even…trustworthy…”
2. Jezebel – “named after an evil queen in the Bible, is a loose woman who wants sex all the time … she uses sex to draw men in to get what she wants. Sometimes it’s money. Sometimes, it’s to destroy them…”
3. Sapphire – “named after a character in ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy'(the sitcom)… She is an overbearing, hard, and undesirable woman who drives men away.”
Repackaging Mammy?
Dr. Zandria Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Memphis, is familiar with the stereotypes.
“In terms of Mammy propaganda, ‘Gone with the Wind’ etc., I think in some ways we’ve come along way, and then in some ways, what we’ve done is just repackage the Mammy narrative for contemporary moments,” said Dr. Robinson.
As an example, she referenced Patricia Hill Collins’ book, “Black Feminist Thought.” Collins discusses actress S. Epatha Merkeson’s character (Lt. Anita Van Buren) on the television drama “Law & Order” as an example of Mammy repackaged. The character Van Buren is a lieutenant who’s strong and nurturing, but is a tough-love type figure.
“I think a lot of times, we see larger Black women being cast as Mammy figures. The Mammy figure might now be a sidekick person,” said Dr. Robinson.
“We still want Black women to mother us as a society. We still see Black women’s role as caregivers, and when they’re not caregivers, they become angry b——.”
Michelle Obama, said Dr. Robinson, is subject to society’s need for African-American women to be nurturing, mothering caregivers.
“I think Michelle Obama has kind of responded to criticism of her being stoic (by doing) very motherly-type things to try to counter that. She’s got the garden, and she’s all like, ‘Let’s move with the kids!’ Because for her to have a political voice…is seen as threatening, she has to balance that with a lot of mothering and nurturing….
“Also, because her physical body doesn’t meet the expectations of the propaganda Mammy, she has to work against that and be nurturing.”
Images and the ‘Tilted Room’
Dr. Beverly Bond, an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis, said the images of the Mammy, the Jezebel and the Sapphire have long been used by society to control African-American women.
“Are they any less apparent in today’s society? I’m not really sure. No, I don’t think that they’ve disappeared. I think they’re just discussed in a different way,” she said.
Dr. Bond mentioned the ’tilted room’ in Melissa Harris-Perry’s book, “Sister Citizen.” Perry asserts that the images create what she calls a tilted room in which African-American women have to adjust their ideas of who they are and what they’re supposed to be to stand in the room.
“Images really grow out of people’s mind,” said Dr. Bond. “If you have a society that feels that they need to see African-American women as mammies in order to not see them as threatening, then they will see African-American women as mammies.”
Dr. Earnestine Jenkins, an art history professor at the University of Memphis, pondered the question about stereotyped perceptions of African-American and said, “In some ways I think it’s changed, and in some ways I think it hasn’t changed a whole lot.
“I think the ideas around stereotyping Black women as being…the person that they (other women) come to with their problems, always forcing her to be in a nurturing, sort of subsidiary kind of role is to some degree still here.”
Television and perceptions
From “Being Mary Jane” and “Scandal” to reality television shows, how big a role does television-programming play in shaping perceptions, and what messages are they perpetuating?
“In ‘Being Mary Jane,’ the problem that I have with it is that…there’s this mythology around no matter how well black women seem to be doing economically and in terms of status, there’s this stereotype of them not being marriageable,” said Dr. Jenkins.
“And the women in ‘Being Mary Jane,’ if they don’t have partners, they’re OK with going with married men. …There’s another stereotype of the hard black woman (Sapphire), and I think there’s some of that in ‘Being Mary Jane.'”
“Scandal” is interesting, with a complexity to that “particular character (Olivia Pope) that does go beyond mammy stereotypes,” said Jenkins. “I think that particular character is fleshed out very well and is complicated.” Dr. Jenkins said.
Does television really play as big a role as some might think? Dr. Robinson doesn’t think so.
“Do I think we’re at a point in our society where we can show complex, black women figures who are perfect and everything? No. Do I think we’ll ever be at that point? No. Do I think that means that we don’t have complex figures? No.
“We should be able to grapple with these figures who are deeply flawed,” she said.
Moving forward past stereotypes
“I think one of the things that African-American women have to work against is letting those images define who they are,” Dr. Bond said.
Dr. Jenkins said it’s important to have African-American writers and producers, particularly when talking about film and TV productions.
“It’s important to have representation behind the camera, because that’s where a lot of the real power lies,” she said.
Dr. Robinson thinks we are beginning to see a broader set of representations of African-American women on television, and said, “in a way the diversity of black women’s roles is a sign of progress.
“However, until we as a society are ready for dynamic representations of black women as more than stereotypes…black women’s representations may represent new archetypes.”
NOTE: Nancy Green was an African-American storyteller. She was one of the first African-American corporate models in the United States, becoming known as “Aunt Jemima.” In the late 19th century, the Aunt Jemima character was prominent in minstrel shows.


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