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“Mammy” is one of the most vivid characters on the southern cultural landscape. Immortalized in songs, stories, and films, Mammy is the endlessly loving, eternally loyal black woman who nurses, scolds, comforts, and guides her white charges from the cradle to adulthood and beyond, dependable in every emergency from colic to a failed romance. In one famous incarnation, she is Scarlett O’Hara’s indispensable emotional anchor; in another, she is William Faulkner’s Dilsey, whose steadfast moral plumb line marks the Compson family’s inexorable decline. Ageless, sexless, and undistracted by her own children, she pours endless love on her white babies, teaches them (and their mothers) everything important from manners to biscuit-making, and upholds family standards even when her white folks are tempted to crumple. “She’s like a member of the family,” they assure all comers, echoing the planters’ faded evocation of “our family, black and white.” Lauded for her endless gifts and selfless generosity, she is summoned from the kitchen to refute the critics of southern race relations; cruelly circumscribed and taken for granted, she silently confirms them all. In an age of unstable families and revolutionized race relations, it’s no wonder that Mammy is controversial.
In 2009, white Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett offered a new perspective on Mammy in her debut novel, The Help. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, The Help tells the story of “Skeeter” Phelan, an ambitious young white woman who tries to launch her writing career with a household column for the local paper. Knowing nothing of housekeeping, she persuades her friend’s longsuffering maid Aibileen to share her knowledge. Their clandestine relationship opens Skeeter’s eyes to the rank injustices of a maid’s life and Jackson’s racial order, which is coming apart even as the story progresses, despite the best efforts of the city’s leaders and their wives to hold the line in public and in their private households. Skeeter’s dawning (but always incomplete) insight gives her the idea for a book of stories from Jackson maids, anonymously telling the sad, bitter details of exploitation and meanness from their employers. Parallel chapters told by Aibileen and her friend Minny explain how they preserve their own dignity by pushing back, one by writing and prayer, the other by open confrontation. Of the two maids, Aibileen more closely matches Mammy’s classic profile, as she lavishes love on her last and latest white baby, Mae Mobley, but makes her own sacrifice a form of resistance by using steady affirmation and encouragement to protect Mae Mobley from her weak mother and a sexist society. In the end, the community of Jackson maids gain the satisfaction of seeing their stories told in public, collectively shaming their tyrannical employers, and Skeeter rides the book’s success to a promising New York career. Should the reader be troubled by these unequal outcomes? The text does not say.
The Help has been wildly successful, selling over 5 million copies in 35 countries, spending over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and inspiring an equally popular movie with four Academy Award nominations and an Oscar win [End Page 2] by Octavia Spencer for her portrayal of Minny. White readers and viewers have been especially enthusiastic, praising The Help for helping them see the suffering and abuse that the Mammy stereotype conceals. Some black readers and viewers have been equally complimentary, but black and white critics have also condemned Stockett’s work, claiming that she soft-pedaled the pain in a set of stories she had no right to tell, glorified the white liberal Skeeter at the expense of black victims, ignored sexual abuse, distorted black speech with demeaning dialect, ignored institutional racism, and minimized the public...