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Critical Mass/Opinion: Mammies, Aunt Jemima face reckoning in 2020

by Philip Martin | June 28, 2020 at 2:49 a.m.
Vivian Leigh (left) and Hattie McDaniel in a scene from Gone with the Wind.

A caricature is a bit of truth exploited in service of a larger lie. No doubt women who looked and dressed like pancake mascot Aunt Jemima existed; they smiled and presented as happy to feed and serve their client families, and in some cases may really have been thought of as a part of the family.

I have heard good-hearted people say they loved their maid, their housekeeper, their "mammy" and were kind to her. Maybe they even visited her once or twice in her own home, which while humbler than theirs was comfortable and tidy. Maybe they even were playmates with her children, their shadow siblings. Maybe when the old man died he left her his old Buick.

My family never had a maid, but I noticed them in friends' houses. Generally, the arrangement seemed cordial and professional. A century past the slavery days, most of the maids spoke Spanish as their first language. But I saw the Aunt Jemima women too, at bus stops and in grocery stores, looking as tired and preoccupied as anybody else.

Why would anyone get upset over a corporation discontinuing the use of a problematic corporate mascot? (Quaker Oats announced on June 17 that it was ending the Aunt Jemima brand.) Most of us tend to believe we learn things as we go along; we become wiser and more efficient. We get better with more reps. It stands to reason that we might change our minds about what is appropriate. The icon we know as Aunt Jemima descends from a racial caricature used to market the lie that slaves were by and large a happy lot, dispensers of wide grins and faithful service.

There is scant evidence of female slaves running their master's households or serving as their white mistress' chief of staff. Catherine Clinton, in her groundbreaking 1982 study of women in the Old South The Plantation Mistress, alleges the Mammy "is a figment of the combined romantic imaginations of the contemporary Southern ideologue and the modern Southern historian ... created to redeem the relationship between black women and white men within slave society," relationships that often included sexual exploitation.

Only after emancipation did black women begin to occupy the roles in white households that fiction and folklore have assigned to them. In the antebellum, only very rich planters could afford slaves as household servants; it was in the Jim Crow era that middle-class white families started hiring domestic help. It was a buyers' market for poor black women who needed work at whatever wage they could get.

A few may have fit the stereotype of the desexualized, large, kerchief-wearing, religious, kind and fiercely loyal mammy, but most of them prioritized their own families over the white children they were paid to supervise, and no doubt most of them resented the harsh conditions of their impoverished lives.

Aunt Jemima started out as a white man in blackface, singing lines like: "My ol' missus promised me/That when she died she'd set me free/She lives so long her head got bald/She swore she'd never die at all."

The character started to appear in minstrel shows about a decade after the Civil War. In 1889, Charles Rutt, a Missouri newspaper editor, and Charles G. Underwood, a mill owner, co-opted the image as spokesman for a product they'd developed, a self-rising flour that only needed water. In 1890, they sold their recipe to the R.T. Davis Company which took the marketing concept a little further, hiring a woman who was born a slave, Nancy Green, to embody Aunt Jemima.

At the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago, the R.T. Davis Company built a huge flour barrel, 24 feet high, and stationed Green as Aunt Jemima near it. In addition to cooking pancakes, she sang and told stories about the good old days down on the plantation. By the end of the fair, she — as Aunt Jemima — was established as one of the most trusted brand icons in the country; in 1914 the company became the Aunt Jemima Mills Company. (In 1926, it was sold to General Mills.)

Bottles of Aunt Jemima Original Syrup are displayed on a grocery store shelf.

(AP/Gene J. Puskar)
Bottles of Aunt Jemima Original Syrup are displayed on a grocery store shelf. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Contrary to stories circulating on the Internet, Green didn't become a millionaire through her portrayal. For most of her career, her primary employment was as the housekeeper for a wealthy Chicago family. Few people outside her circle of close friends were ever aware of her role as Aunt Jemima; most people probably didn't give much thought to who was playing the character. Some probably assumed that Aunt Jemima was real.

For Green and the women that followed her, it was a job. A better job than cleaning other people's houses and cooking other people's meals and looking after other people's children. Only nostalgia makes it seem like more than work.


In episode five of the first season of Ryan Murphy's Netflix series Hollywood, Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) is depicted as the lover of Tallulah Bankhead (Paget Brewster). This affair has long been part of Hollywood folklore, though there's no real evidence it ever happened beyond the fact that both Bankhead and McDaniel led interesting, unconventional lives and had the opportunity to know each other. (Still, it's such a tantalizing thought that there's even been a musical — Tallulah and Hattie: Dead at the Pearly Gates Cafe — written about the presumed affair.)

Given the way Hollywood plays with history to present an alternative (and in many ways more satisfying) vision of what the movie-industrial complex could have become, the reference to the McDaniel-Bankhead myth (which might be true; can you prove it didn't happen?) is certainly fair game (God help us if we ever start looking to TV shows for our history .... er, um, oopsie).

McDaniel is an interesting and often unfairly derided figure whose very real talents (she was probably the first black woman to sing on the radio) were largely wasted by an industry that lacked the courage to offer her the roles she deserved, largely because they reckoned the (white) audience wouldn't tolerate black performers in any role other than culturally safe caricatures.

So while McDaniel was often criticized for playing the roles that Hollywood made available to her, she very sensibly noted that it "was better to earn $1,250 a week playing the part of a maid than $12.50 being a maid." Her Oscar-winning performance in Gone With the Wind (1939) is often seen as problematic, as it is very much another manifestation of the Mammy character.

In the film, McDaniel's character, actually named Mammy, fights with black soldiers she believes are threatening Miss Scarlett, a scene that echoes one in D.W. Griffith's notoriously racist (and culturally significant) The Birth of a Nation (1915) where the mammy (played by stage actress Jennie Lee in blackface) defends her white master's home against Union soldiers.

Some context: McDaniel was one of the leading black actresses of her time (she appeared in more than 300 movies in her career, receiving name credit in about a third of them). But when she wasn't working as a maid in the pictures (she played a servant at least 74 times) she sometimes worked as one. Her parents were both born slaves; her father fought with the 122nd United States Colored Troops against the Confederacy. She probably had her own thoughts about the characters she was called upon — allowed — to play. She undercut caricature with humanity, with an unmistakable empathy. It is a shame to see her canceled.

But, then Gone With the Wind itself is not really canceled, it's just been pulled from HBO Max for a little while until some safety instructions are installed. Maybe that seems silly to you, but the fact is the myth the movie represents is still potent — when President Donald Trump complained about the South Korean movie Parasite winning the Best Picture Oscar earlier this year, the movie he invoked was GWTW.

In his recent piece in the Los Angeles Times calling for HBO Max to remove the film from its streaming library, John Ridley, the filmmaker who won an Oscar for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay, argues it "as part of the narrative of the 'Lost Cause,' romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or nobler than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the 'right' to own, sell, and buy human beings."

He's absolutely right; though once again we probably need to understand that, by the standards of their day, director Victor Fleming and producer David Selznick were enlightened men, who, as film historian Michael Sragow puts it in his critical biography of Fleming (Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master) "massaged ambivalence and irony into the storytelling."

Butterfly McQueen (left) and Hattie McDaniel in a behind-the-scenes production still from Gone With the Wind.
Butterfly McQueen (left) and Hattie McDaniel in a behind-the-scenes production still from Gone With the Wind.

"Like Margaret Mitchell, they intuited that if you respect the traditions of florid romance, you can question the principles behind them more powerfully," Sragow writes. "If you glorify the courtliness of the Old South, you can also savage its dreaminess ... Rhett, the realist, who gets rich running Union blockades for the Confederacy, is in effect a mustachioed Cassandra, predicting the fall of the South. The whole movie is built on matched opposites ... workmanlike or corrupt Northerners and gallant or trashy Southerners, spoiled whites and enduring blacks ... When Fleming announced that he was going to make a melodrama, he didn't specify a simple one."


It's not simple, and maybe I have been guilty of trying to make it so. I have joked that Gone With the Wind went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time despite being a not very good movie based on a not very good book. I don't hate Gone With the Wind, but don't need to see it again. Some people love it. My mother loves it. Kareem Abdul Jabbar's mother loves it.

It is a soap opera of such magnitude it shames all objections. It is, as even our president knows, the biggest movie from back in the day when movies were big. Like all myths, it is a simple story rich in the old verities of honor, passion, courage and perseverance. As such it is bogus — as well as ineffable and sublime. It is silly and sad; overblown, overwrought and over-hyped. To resist it is to admit your cynicism, your proclivity to have no fun.

While Mitchell's stereotypical depictions of black folk are jarring to modern readers, her critique of the Southern aristocracy is acute. There is a kernel of social realism in the book, and moral ambiguity too. Rhett Butler is no more standard-issue hero material than Scarlett is your average heroine; the virtue of Mitchell's romance is that she doesn't romanticize these lovers or offer the kind of happily-ever-after remedy Hollywood insists upon. Rhett and Scarlett are in love, but they are also who they are. They are doomed by their own character.

Her novel is not great literature but aspires to be. Mitchell wanted to be America's Dostoevsky. Instead, she wrote the best-selling (and no doubt best-read) American novel of all time.

Installed as an essential American myth, GWTW is an unavoidable cultural artifact.

It might seem quaint to modern audiences, yet it is a force with which we all must deal — even if we deal with it by avoiding it or by adopting an attitude of smug condescension toward Grandmother's all-time favorite movie.

We are as removed from the date of the film's premiere as that premiere was from the end of the Civil War. We can't see the film as those audiences did. We're aware we're watching what some people consider the greatest movie of all time, and that knowledge forecloses our options. We either plunge headlong into its rich bittersweet pageantry or we hold it at arm's length like a curious purple bug. Everyone should see it once because it has become part of our national collective consciousness, the communal storehouse from which we draw our freighted misconceptions of the way we were.

But we should know what we're looking at.

Except for a few extraordinary scenes — thousands of wounded soldiers laid out row on row forever, a horse-drawn carriage silhouetted by consuming flames, some bloody expressionistic skies — it feels dull to me. Most of the cinematography is pedestrian with some scenes ridiculously overlit, no doubt because Technicolor was still a glorious new gimmick in 1939.

Vivien Leigh's performance as Scarlett O'Hara is iconic — and unsubtly melodramatic. She pouts well enough, but she seems as equally distressed over her daddy's dying and Rhett Butler's leaving her as she does about her waistline. Clark Gable often seems embarrassed to be appearing in the film. At times his Rhett looks like a man bravely smiling through lower back pain.

McDaniel deserved her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and the oft-derided McQueen strove to invest her comic performance with dignity (Malcolm X did not agree, recalling that "when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug"), but in general, the level of acting in the movie is not high.

Fleming is credited as the movie's director and won an Academy Award for his contribution, but the film is hardly his best. A certain stylistic inconsistency might be attributed to the fact that George Cukor, Sam Wood and William Cameron Menzies also directed several scenes without credit.

Similarly, though Sidney Howard was the only writer aside from Mitchell to receive a writing credit, there were at least 10 other writers involved in scripting the movie, including producer Selznick, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. If GWTW is a masterpiece, then it is the rarest sort of masterpiece — one made by a committee.

Whatever the intentions of its makers, GWTW warped our idea of what the Civil War was about.

There was nothing romantic about the Confederate cause. The war was fought over complicated economic issues that resolve into a simple moral question: Can a human being own another human being? To present it as otherwise is to present a caricature.


Critical Mass/Opinion


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