The Thorny Problem of Mammy

Gone with the Wind. The title evokes instant recognition from most people even today.  It is perhaps the most famous and beloved of novels set during and after the American Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was the best selling novel of 1936. It is an enormous, multi-faceted epic, a psychological examination of survival and its cost, a love story that still retains appeal almost eighty years later, and a tome so pivotal that its author was never able to escape its shadow (and thus could not produce further novels, despite having plenty of ideas). And in the midst of being all these things, Gone with the Wind is also increasingly tarnished with the label of racism, leading the novel to grow more controversial with each passing year.  There are numerous criticisms made today (and even back in 1936) regarding the way Gone with the Wind handles race, but the biggest issue is that of the actual portrayal of slave culture itself.  The most controversial character in the novel, embodying this criticism more than anyone else, is the character of Mammy.

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The romanticism of plantation culture (seen here from a beautiful still from the 1939 film) has long met with criticism, even in 1936, but today criticism is becoming increasingly loud.

Mammy

Mammy was memorably portrayed in the film version of Gone with the Wind by Academy Award winning actress Hattie McDaniel.

Mammy’s role is that of a maternal figure within the life of Scarlett O’Hara, the novel’s main character; she did much of the work raising the O’Hara girls as they grew up, and by the time of the novel’s beginning, she serves mostly as a chaperone. As a house slave, her relationship to the family is far closer than that of most slaves and places her near the top of the slave hierarchy. She is domineering, bossy, loving, fiercely loyal, and far too comfortable within (and accepting of) her role in life for many modern audiences.  Her use of vernacular is, to many critics, reminiscent of a minstrel archetype, albeit this one portrayed by an African-American rather than a white performer in blackface.  One of the biggest criticisms levied toward Mammy is that she represents an affirmative slave and owner relationship and, in fact, seems relatively happy with her lot in life.  To many people today, this puts slavery in far too positive of a light for comfort — a fair criticism.  Critics claim that depictions such as this are dangerous because they romanticize a cruel past, transforming it into something that never existed.  Such depictions distort the reality of the slave experience and, critics allege, are damaging to African-American identity today.

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Mammy’s role within the O’Hara family is an intimate one, which gives her far greater autonomy than the vast majority of slaves. To critics, this depiction dangerously undermines the horrendous reality of true plantation life for slaves.

Is Mammy a racist caricature as some of the more ardent critics allege?  Should we discontinue sales of Gone with the Wind in its book and film forms because it actively feeds racism today — and does it, in fact, feed racism?  Should children be discouraged and warned against the novel?  Is Gone with the Wind, in fact, too dangerous of a book (and film) for today’s audience?  Or does the novel have validity?

When analyzing any text, the most important thing to do is to analyze it for what it is, instead of what it is not.  And herein lies the central problem of much of what has been written or spoken against Gone with the Wind.  Critics who see racism and danger in the book (or film) are all too often guilty of the fallacy of criticizing it for what it is not.  Gone with the Wind is not a realistic portrayal of the slaves’ experience during or after the American Civil War.  Nor did Margaret Mitchell intend for it to be.  In telling her story, she was telling the story that she knew: that of the Southern white plantation-owning class.  She grew up amongst Civil War veterans and former slave owners — it was their story and their perceived history that Margaret Mitchell set out to portray.  She herself never saw Mammy as a caricature or a racist depiction — she was portraying the southern mammy as the southern children saw her, not as Mammy necessarily saw herself.  As truth, this would indeed have potential danger.  Viewed instead as myth and symbol, it becomes a highly useful text for analysis.

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In her depiction of the slaves’ lives, Margaret Mitchell was giving the outsiders’ perspective, the viewpoint of the slave owner.  This viewpoint has tremendous value and validity.  By seeing this part of the story, we can better understand the full picture of the “peculiar institution” of slavery.  Portrayals such as this help us to understand a more passive form of racism that existed during the time and after: a paternalistic viewpoint that many at the time viewed as moral.  They were wrong, certainly, but in listening to their side we can better comprehend why slavery could endure even amongst the “good” people in the South, as opposed to just amongst the blatantly racist and hate-filled individuals — this is the full picture of slavery, and we cannot approach the topic realistically without seeing all the angles that complicated and convoluted it.  It is important to know Mammy’s side of the story, yes.  And there are a great many excellent, well-written slave narratives that can help us to do just that.  But it is also important, even equally important, to hear from the side who enslaved Mammy and lived with Mammy and even, in many cases, loved Mammy.  How else are we to prevent future such evils without understanding the mindsets that allowed and encouraged them in the past?  And how else are we to understand the quandary of the South today: the dreadful burden of the true history, the legacy of the “Lost Cause” myth, the romanticized image of plantation culture that so many people still want to embrace today?

 


Recommended further reading:

Edwards, Anne.  Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell.  1983.  Reprint, New York:  Taylor Trade Publishing, 2014.

Harwell, Richard, Ed.  Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Letters, 1936-1949.  London: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1976.

Watts, Jill.  Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood.  New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

 

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