The mammy in Hollywood film
I'd walk a million miles —
for one of her smiles

by Sybil DelGaudio

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 23-25
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

“There are two kinds of females in this country — colored women and white ladies. Colored women are maids, cooks, taxi drivers, crossing guards, schoolteachers, welfare recipients, bar maids, and the only time they become ladies is when they are cleaning ladies.”(1)

According to political scientist Mae C. King, every political system has its myths.(2) These myths usefully justify the dominant principles of the society in which they were created. In the case of U.S. society, the dominant principle has been the caste system, a hierarchy of privileges and restrictions based largely on race. In both social mythology and in its reflection in U.S. cinema, white male power has been assisted by the maintenance of black female stereotypes. As King suggests, the caste system freezes social levels of status, opportunity, and privilege. It does this by ascribing inherited physical and mental characteristics to various castes and maintaining caste positions with whatever injustices and power iniquities have placed people there.(3) One way in which Hollywood cinema, our medium of social reaffirmation, has successfully reinforced the social hierarchy maintained by the U.S. caste system is in its presentation of the image of the Mammy.

The Mammy’s image is inexorably linked to either the slave-society image of surrogate maternalism and domestic service (in the rearing and socialization of white children), or to the pernicious myth of black matriarchy (in the sole parenting of the fractured, father-absent black family). The Mammy has persisted as one of the few recurring images of black women on the screen. The strength of the stereotype has been greatly reinforced by the powerful iconography of her physical image, the recognizable character traits, the customary position of socio-economic dependency, and the consistently reappearing personae of such familiar black actresses as Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers.

Iconographically, the Mammy has usually appeared as, the dark-skinned Aunt Jemima, whose physical largess seemed capable of enfolding a substantial portion of white Southern society's children in her loving, maternal arms. The enormity of her size, while potentially increasing the image of her maternal strength, presented a de-sexualized image, especially contrasted with those sylphlike, objectified others of her gender who exemplified the feminine ideal. Such desexualization became further substantiated by the almost total non-existence of her own children, husband or lover. This familial isolation served to present the Mammy as a character who had, in effect, been spayed. Her apparent barrenness neutralized any latent power residing in her capacity for biological motherhood.(4)

Her character traits, ranging from unquestioningly loyal to warmly irascible, became fixed by the powerful performances of the women who played her. Whether it was the exceedingly faithful Louise Beavers in John Stahl's IMITATION OF LIFE, or the memorably contentious Hattie Mc Daniel in GONE WITH THE WIND, the Mammy image reflected the opposite of the myth of social mobility for blacks. As presented in Hollywood films, her image persists as a unique one of apparent strength for both blacks and women.(5) Yet if we look more closely at the structures in which this apparent strength is "allowed" by white culture — both in the larger social myth and in Hollywood cinema — we can see the limitations of the Mammy image and understand why this particular depiction of black power has remained largely unattacked by whites.

In reality, in the South the Mammy was an important figure in the socialization of white Southern children and the person to whom they often turned for affection and security. She was primarily concerned with the care of the children, relieving the mistress of the house of much of the difficult work connected with such care.(6)

The black Mammy, referred to as such to distinguish her from natural mothers of black children, was so closely associated with members of the white family that she has often been linked more closely with members of the white group than with members of her own race. According to Eugene Genovese, the slaves in the Big House had an advantageous position, and a reciprocal childcare agreement existed between Mammies and white women.(7) But what of her own children? Evidence of Mammy's own children is obvious because of her facility as a wet nurse. However, because of her enormous responsibility and devotion to white children, some black observers have accused the Mammy of neglecting her own in favor of those white children. W.E.B. DuBois described her as “one of the world's Christs … she was an embodied Sorrow, an anomaly crucified on the cross of her own neglected children for the sake of the children who bought and sold her as they bought and sold cattle.”(8)

Actually, this idea is more accurately an outgrowth of the myth that surrounds the Mammy, a myth that arose out of a desire to create, not only the faithful soul, but also the supremely sacrificial slave. Thus, the characteristics attributed to the Mammy have become "standardized and institutionalized by sentiment," and have to do with her caretaker role for the whites' children. Her "virtues" were generally denied to other slave women, and she has been variously described as:

“self-respecting, independent, loyal, forward, gentle, captious, affectionate, true, strong, just, warm-hearted, popular, fearless, brave, good, pious, capable, thrifty, proud, regal, courageous, superior, skillful, tender, queenly, dignified, neat, quick, competent, possessed with a quick temper, trustworthy, faithful, patient, tyrannical, sensible, discreet, efficient, careful, harsh, devoted, truthful, neither apish nor servile.”(9)

Such extreme mythologized eulogies to black maternalism suggest that it may have been a white male fear of white Southern women's power which caused the transferring of maternal authority from white mothers to black surrogates in Southern plantation society. With that re-location, white patriarchal mythology has created the Black Mammy — powerful and strong, maternal and proud — yet distinctly under the control of paternalistic slave society.(10)

The maintenance of the Mammy myth affected not only white Southern womanhood, but black Southern manhood as well. The idea of the strong black matriarch has aroused controversy since the publication of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's denigrating report on black matriarchy. According to Robert Staples, the notion of black matriarchy carries with it connotations of power and dominance. But these connotations belie black women's oppressed status, from their original condition in the United States as chattel to their continued low status as the doubly oppressed today, both as blacks and as women. To burden the "matriarch" with other accusations, such as robbing the black man of his manhood, serves to foster the kinds of antagonisms in the black community that perpetuate the continued exploitation of the oppressed group, maintaining suspicion and divisiveness among its members.(11)

It seems clear that the creation and maintenance of the Mammy in Southern plantation society served a dual purpose. It removed any trace of power from white Southern women, and it contributed to the maintenance of a divisive family structure in which black males would have little or no power. As Angela Davis suggests, the slave system could not afford to acknowledge any symbols of authority, whether male or female, so the recognition of a matriarchal family structure seemed antithetical to attempts to eliminate any source of power which might eventually turn against the slave system.(12) The removal of the Mammy figure from her own family unit, and her re-location as surrogate mother in the Big House neutralized her own power and effectively killed two mother hens with one stone.

Eldridge Cleaver, in Soul on Ice, offered a contemporary analysis of sexual, racial and power relations in U.S. society:

“The myth of the strong black woman is the other side of the coin of the myth of the beautiful dumb blonde. The white man turned the white woman into a weak-minded, weak-bodied, delicate freak, a sexpot, and placed her on a pedestal; he turned the black woman into a strong, self-reliant Amazon and deposited her in his kitchen — that's the secret of Aunt Jemima's bandanna. The white man turned himself into the Omnipotent Administrator and established himself in the Front Office. And he turned the black man into the Supermasculine Menial and kicked him out into the fields."(13)

All these myths, equally applicable to Hollywood films, suggest the persistence of images which have maintained power inequities between men and women. But the Mammy image, which reappeared so frequently in films, was one which served as the hub of a mythical wheel whose various spokes commemorated slavery far beyond its actual abolition. The culture fostered myths of black matriarchy and factious fantasies of denial and assimilation that were destructive to potentially secure family role-models.(14)

Hollywood films presented two, essential, garden-variety Mammy images. One was of slave society’s historical Mammy, characterized by Hattie McDaniel in GONE WITH THE WIND. The other was her "liberated," domesticated sister, characterized by McDaniel, Beavers and others as the maid, servant, cook and faithful soul. This image supposedly emancipated the Mammy from her antebellum entrapment by a more equal positioning in the home of the white family.(15)

In fact, the post-emancipation Mammy's domesticity does not differ markedly from that of her slave sister. The Big House may have become the big house, but entrance into the mainstream of U.S. society would not come purely through the kitchen door. Historically, domestic service has forced black women to play some of the same roles they played during slavery. Often those who did not sign economically constrictive contracts to work in fields became domestic servants, exploited by some of the familiar techniques of oppression and dependency. Slavery was, after all, known as the domestic institution.(16) As W.E.B. DuBois argued,

"… (T)he Negro will not approach freedom until this hateful badge of slavery and medievalism (i.e., domestic service) has been reduced to less than ten percent."(17)

Two of the most striking images of the domestic Mammy, supposedly removed from the restrictions of slave society, yet clearly reduplicating its conditions, are those presented by the two Hollywood versions of the Fannie Hurst novel, Imitation of Life. Both in perpetuating the myth in John Stahl's 1934 version, and in its questioning by Douglas Sink in 1958, the Mammy images and their filmic contexts serve to encapsulate the myriad myths associated with the Mammy figure. And their glaring contrasts present significant distinctions between the tragic vision of Stahl's film and the ironic/critical vision of Sirk's.

John Stahl's 1934 version of IMITATION OF LIFE features Louise Beavers as Aunt Delilah, a reissued Mammy who, though similar in stature to McDaniel's slave, was less cantankerous and more emotionally ingenuous than her GONE WITH THE WIND counterpart. A large woman who went on force-feed diets to increase her size and her marketability as an actress, and who affected a Southern accent to mask her Los Angeles upbringing, Beavers literally studied and ate her way into the stereotype. The enormity of her physique became a physical manifestation of her character's social conditions and her own typecasting. If size is traditionally associated with strength, then this "mountain of a woman," as she is referred to in Stahl's film, subverts that stereotype. Her size becomes a metaphor for her own social immobility, in contrast to the svelte, lithe and upwardly mobile Bea (Claudette Colbert). Here also, the black Mammy, whose choices have been more rigidly circumscribed by conditions associated with slavery, frees the white mother of her maternal responsibilities. Delilah even ensures her own domestic fixed position, adding to the myth of black self-sacrifice by revealing her secret pancake recipe to her employer, Bea, who uses it to create a successful business. Beavers represents the perfect, faithful servant, unconcerned with her own success, completely content with servility. And her image, a smiling face crowned by a cook's hat, reaches iconic proportions, as it becomes a trade mark, stamped on boxes of flour and emblazoned on neon signs which publicly proclaim her domesticity.

Throughout the film, Delilah refers to herself as Mammy, a term which inflames her light-skinned daughter Peola (played by black actress, Fredi Washington), who has been trying to "pass for white." The retention of slave names; association with and responsibilities in the Big House (and the house becomes bigger and filled with more black servants as the pancake business booms); and the presence of a mulatto child, a biological reminder of the slaveholder's exercise of power and property rights over black women, who were raped at will by white slave-owners — all these serve to recreate conditions which serve as a mythic metaphor of slavery. Moreover, the film's presentation of an abridged, father-absent, black family highlights the myth of black matriarchy, leaving the unit more vulnerable to the compound fractures of denial and desired assimilation. Peola's misguided values lead to her ultimate tragedy of denial, and her mother dies of a broken heart. However, the film significantly does not end with Delilah's funeral. In a scene in which Bea prevents a parallel tragedy through an act of personal sacrifice,(18) Stahl shifts the final emphasis from the resulting tragedy to preventive action, from the larger causal issues of society and race to more avoidable problems of personal priority. The film ultimately prefers the comfort of 30s optimism to the agony of social reality.

Whereas parallels become signs of individualization and particularization in Stahl's film, they become sources of irony and social commentary in Douglas Sirk's 1958 version. (Is re-make another source of Sirkian irony?) In Sirk's imitation of IMITATION, the Mammy image gets altered in a sign of the film's general fade to white. Here, the blacks are whiter, and the whites are blonder. The slim, barely Southern Juanita Moore plays the Mammy, while the sultry white Susan Kohner plays her daughter. Even the names have been de-Southernized. Aunt Delilah becomes Annie Johnson and Peola becomes Sara Jane. With platinum-haired Lana Turner as Lora Meredith, altered here from pancake queen to aspiring actress, and Sandra Dee as her bouncy blonde daughter, exemplifying American Pert, this film deals more critically than did its predecessor with the larger idea of assimilation. Sara Jane wants to be white, but Sirk questions that ideal through physical hyperbole. Since blondeness is, as Maureen Turim has suggested, a cultural fetish of a racist society,(19) then ultra-blonde puts Sara Jane's ideal out of reach, making imitation at its extreme — i.e., assimilation — impossible. Throughout the film, Sirk criticizes the ideal, and this critique extends to questioning in a broader way the false values of the society to which Sara Jane aspires.

As fake jewelry inundates the frame behind the titles, a Johnny Mathis sound-alike (Earl Grant) sings the title song, the lyrics of which proclaim, "Without love, we are merely living an imitation of life." These are Sirk's first clues to the missing elements and fraud. The world of false values is further highlighted by Lora Meredith's escalating wardrobe (from her opening babushka and calico to the $78,000 array of gowns by Jean Louis) and Sara Jane's attempts to mimic the material signs of success, in garish, slinky sheaths which reek of bad taste. Lora's world of professional values is emulated as well, by Sara Jane, who performs in tawdry nightclubs, a mockery of Lora's counterfeit culture, of Lora's world of false theatricality. Both women fail to see themselves as they really are. Sirk's use of mirrors highlights their misapprehension. While Lora sees an unselfish mother, Sara Jane sees a "perfectly" white woman, but maternal devotion remains as elusive for the ambitious Lora as desired assimilation does for the myopic Sara Jane.

The culmination of Sink's irony and criticism occurs in the film's final funeral scene. Depicting an exaggerated black ritual requested by Annie, it is the one scene in which Annie is placed in her own unique cultural context, detached from Lora. It suggests the existence of a rich life outside the big house, a life which has been filled with loyal friends. (Earlier, Lora expressed surprise at the existence of Annie's separate life, a life she was always too blind to ask about.) In filming the scene partly through frosted glass, a typical Sirkian distancing device, Sirk suggests the difficulty of understanding and grasping true happiness, and he laments the potential death of a rich culture threatened by misguided ideals. Sink himself has summarized the way this film dealt with racial issues:

“The picture is a piece of social criticism — of both white and black. You can't escape what you are. Now the Negroes are waking up to black is beautiful. IMITATION OF LIFE is a picture about the situation of the blacks before the time of the slogan ‘Black is beautiful.’”(20)

While Sirk's own analysis of the film here indicates that the film's appeal was firmly rooted in the past, he downplays the film's powerful treatment of family relationships, particularly those of mother and daughter, which remain profound and relevant today.

Except for a few instances,(21) the Mammy has essentially disappeared from the screen since Annie Johnson's death. The growth of black pride created a new market for films made specifically for black audiences, and a shrinking market for films which perpetuated myths no longer acceptable to the increasing social consciousness of the 60s and 70s. Old stereotypes served as a glaring reminder to a society which was experiencing upheaval, and their commercialism was threatened by a burgeoning black audience, sensitized to relics of racist ideology.

For a while in the 70s, the elimination of old stereotypes encouraged the creation of new personae by such performers as Pam Grier, Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson. But iconographic alteration requires ideological commitment as well as commercial impetus. Total elimination seems easier to affect than risky redefinition. Black women have all but disappeared from Hollywood films (Pam Grier was recently relegated to a minor role in FORT APACHE, THE BRONX, in which she was reduced to a metaphor for the insidiously destructive forces of the ghetto). So what we are not seeing on the screen today seems, ironically, a commercial manifestation of the same myths of denial, assimilation and invisibility perpetuated by the Mammy image with which we were once so familiar.


1. Gerda Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 217.

2. Mae C. King, "The Politics of Sexual Stereotypes," Black Scholar, March/April 1973, p. 13.

3. King, p. 13.

4. Several films, including Ella Kazan's PINKY (1949) and both Hollywood versions of IMITATION OF LIFE (1934 and 1958), presented the Mammy with her own children. Both the Stahl (1934) and Sirk (1958) variations on the Fannie Hurst theme will be dealt with later.

5. Donald Bogle, in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), contends that McDaniel and Beavers transcended the roles as written, giving a strength to the image which arose out of their own interpretations of the roles.

6. Jessie W. Parkhurst, "The Role of the Black Mammy in the Plantation Household," Journal of Negro History, July 1938, pp. 351-352.

7. Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: Random House, 1972), pp. 354-55.

8. W.E.B. DuBois, quoted in Genovese, p. 356.

9. Parkhurst, p. 352.

10. Angela Davis, in Women, Race and Class (New York: Random House, 1981) suggests that most black women did not even enjoy the ideological status traditionally associated with motherhood. Since slave women were considered more as breeders than as mothers, their value was assessed in terms of their fertility, and their maternal authority was effectively neutralized by the constant threat of the sale of their children (p. 7). The Mammy, on the other hand, had her power neutralized by diffusion and separation, removing her from her own family and resituating her in the Big House.

11. Robert Staples, "The Myth of the Black Matriarchy," Black Scholar, January/February 1970, p. 8.

12. Angela Davis, "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves," Black Scholar, reprinted from 3:4, December 1971, in November/December 1981, p. 4.

13. Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), p. 162.

14. See Bogle's survey of Mammy images in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks for further examples.

15. Davis, Women, Race and Class, p. 90.

16. Davis, Women, Race and Class, p. 91.

17. W.E.B. DuBois, quoted in Davis, Women, Race and Class, p. 98.

18. Here Bea postpones her marriage to her fiancé, on whom Jessie has developed a serious crush.

19. Maureen Turim, "Gentlemen Consume Blondes," Wide Angle 1:1 (revised and expanded), 1979, p. 58.

20. John Halliday, Sirk on Sirk (New York: The Viking Press), p. 130.

21. The reader is referred once again to Bogle, pp. 194, ff.