- Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America
In Clinging to Mammy, Micki McElya uncovers the often astonishing ways white Americans have strived to substantiate the myth of the faithful black mammy—literally as well as figuratively—in the twentieth century. The mammy, McElya observes, is the most visible character in the general myth of the faithful slave, that paternalistic narrative of slavery as reciprocal affection and loyalty rather than coerced and uncompensated labor that has excused slavery and its legacy of racial discrimination and violence since at least the 1830s, and which, McElya argues, persists today. In her analysis of several public movements to enact, embody, and produce the mythical mammy in the twentieth century, and black Americans' responses to them, McElya examines how the color line that W. E. B. Du Bois famously predicted in 1903 would be the problem of the twentieth century "was drawn and violently maintained through stories of interracial affection and faithful slavery, and how it was given shape in fantasies about black women who crossed it" (13-14). Although the general idea that the mammy is a fiction to comfort whites and cloak the violence inherent in racial hierarchies is familiar—black critics, as McElya makes clear, have articulated it throughout the period she studies—McElya's revelation and interpretation of recent but disremembered public performances of the myth is continually surprising and illuminating.
McElya pieces together the stories of these performances from archival sources including major, small-town, and black-owned newspapers, public records, and the [End Page 537] papers of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and situates them in the broader landscape of twentieth-century American race and gender history. The book's six chapters follow a loose chronological path from the debut of "Aunt Jemima" at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 to the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and trace a narrative arc from the erasure of identity experienced by the real African American women who played the role of Aunt Jemima to the assertion of identity with which domestic workers stood up to their employers in Montgomery. Each chapter develops one or more of the themes, conflicts, and ironies that run through them all.
Chapter one, "The Life of 'Aunt Jemima,' " tells the story of the development of the Aunt Jemima trademark through the performance of a fictional formerly enslaved black woman by a real one. In a deft inter-reading of the Aunt Jemima publicity materials and the obituaries of the original performer, Nancy Green, McElya shows how the faithful mammy myth that gave "Aunt Jemima" authenticity overwrote Nancy Green's own life. She sets the creation and phenomenal popularity of the personified mammy myth in the context of the racial and gender politics of the 1893 Chicago Exposition, where Aunt Jemima served pancakes and spun plantation tales while real African Americans, women in particular, were excluded from meaningful representation in the fair's organization or exhibits. The 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, many of whose most impressive features, including an "Old Plantation" concession—"the only concession President Grover Cleveland visited on his official trip to the exposition, a fact later promoted in advertisements" (33)—and Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" speech, also reaffirmed the faithful slave narrative.
The next three chapters analyze the efforts of white women, "the country's primary producers and consumers of the faithful slave narrative" (39), to preserve, promote, and define the black mammy as a way of advancing their own prestige and authority. Chapter two, "Anxious Performances," links two kinds of performance of the black mammy by white women: the United Daughters of the Confederacy's earnest collection, elaboration, and editing of reminiscences of plantation life including "Stories of Faithful Slaves"; and professional and amateur "Mammy" impersonations, a kind of genteel minstrelsy performed with or without blackface, popular in theaters, women's clubs, YWCAs, schools, and Chautauqua programs from about 1900 into the 1920s. On both stage and page, the ability to capture the mammy's "authentic" voice...