Kimbery Wallace-Sanders' Mammy: a Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory

by Cierra Olivia Thomas-Williams | Indiana University Bloomington

Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Mammy: a Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. 192 pages, illustrated. $40.00 hardcover.

52_sm_thomas_01Imagine if you will, the mammy figure. The chances are high that you have conjured a representation of black womanhood that Kimberly Wallace-Sanders in Mammy: a Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory argues is integral to the “American Imagination” (1). “Representation” in this book is characterized by material reality in the form of imagery, advertisements, products, and magazines, but it is also meant as a discursive construct coded through language with ideas-as-fact about that which is signified: black women. This illustrated interdisciplinary monograph critically examines a century’s worth of artifacts—dolls and collectibles, art, advertisements, monuments, and historic photographs of “unidentified black nurses” (illust. 12)— in conversation with literary representations of the black mammy. Thus, Wallace-Sanders demonstrates the constructed nature of the stereotype that was carefully fostered in the South by writers and artists during the 1820s through the 1930s.

Not only does the book define and address the origins of the word, Mammy also intervenes into the growing historiography on black women through an exploration of the gendered and racialized politics of maternity, which are unique and inherent to the mammy figure. Beginning with the Foucaultian trope of the “body as a site of struggle,” Wallace-Sanders argues that emphasizing the maternity of the mammy figure “means seeing the body in a metonymic relationship to personhood, [which is] an essential component of recasting the mammy as more than a turban and a smile” (3). The reference to Michele Foucault could have been developed more deeply; however, the author’s clear and accessible narrative style and thorough treatment of the body politic positions Mammy as a fitting theoretical pair with Foucault’s work for the undergraduate classroom. Wallace-Sanders’ approach to the subject is unique in that it includes not only hegemonic representations of the black mammy through southern plantation fiction and memoir, but also provides analyses of counter-representations by black writers and artists. In six chronological chapters Wallace-Sanders reveals that the mammy is a multifarious figure, a woman who is much more than her two dimensional “Aunt Jemima” stereotype or a literary character.

Chapter one reads early plantation fiction in context with religious propaganda and other cultural relics as a means to trace the introduction of the mammy figure into popular culture. Wallace-Sanders found that the earliest representations of the mammy “reflected greater heterogeneity than later models” (9). Using topsy-turvey dolls (one side of the doll is a white child and the other side a black mammy) as a metaphor for the relationship between mammy and her white charge, chapter two asks provocative questions about black motherhood and sexuality that have not been addressed thus far in the historiography. While previous scholarship addresses the mammy’s “surrogacy” to white children, Wallace-Sanders argues the mammy’s “milk line” is a “supplemental family line” binding black women with their white charges (37). Chapter three traces the origins of the Aunt Jemima trademark revealing a once real woman whose image now unites Americans in a “common historic past” (71), and chapter four examines literary reactions to the “new negro” movement. Chapter five discusses mammy’s jump from a literary character to a bronze monument that “immortalized the mammy” (92). Chapter six compares and contrasts Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury with Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and finds moments of agency in “passing from black to white,” (86) not for mammy but for her children. The book concludes by reminding readers that although the mammy is a pervasive cultural stereotype, the figure is anything but an oversimplified conception of blackness, womanhood, and maternity.

The book is an excellent read for an academic or popular audience of African American history, pop culture, embodiment, motherhood and maternity, and gender studies. What makes this a provocative book is Wallace-Sanders’ assertion that the mammy “type is tied to behavior rather than appearance,” (87) calling into question what readers think they know about mammy, and thus posturing this book as a worthwhile read for scholars of performance. Wallace-Sanders’ fifteen year commitment and synthetic approach to the longstanding cultural icon helps all readers appreciate how physical differences are essentialized through performative acts, not only textually, but also through role play with dolls, and how these acts are memorialized through art and immortalized through social memory. The mammy figure is ultimately representative of the “long lasting and troubling marriage of racial and gender essentialism, mythology, and southern nostalgia” emergent from popular culture in the early nineteenth century, who has “become the most widely recognized representation of an African American woman” (2).

Cierra Olivia Thomas-Williams es una madre soltera nativo-americana que ha tenido el honor de formar parte de la clase inaugural del primer programa doctoral de Estudios de Género de la nación, en la Universidad de Bloomington, Indiana, a través de la beca ‘Univerity Diversity Scholar’ en el 2006. Sus áreas de interés incluyen la representación de las mujeres de color en los medios de comunicación, las teorías críticas feministas y de raza y los feminismos transnacionales y cómo éstos intersecan con las teorías de la diáspora africana. Cierra ha contribuido sus ensayos a la revista On Campus with Women, una publicación de la Asociación de Colegios y Universidades Americanas, específicamente en el ejemplar titulado "Visibility and Invisibility: LGBTQ Students on Campus". Además es becaria del Kinsley Institute, quien le otorgó fondos para una investigación conjunta a cerca de la sexualidad.