The Mammy and the Jezebel: The images of black women in American Society

11 Jan

There is a new book out by a scholar named Melissa Harris-Perry called Sister Citizen in which she explores the stereotypes associated with black women. According a her interview on You Tube she identifies four stereotypes; the angry black woman, the strong black woman, the Mammy and the Jezebel. In my earlier days of ethnic studies we only discussed the last two, the Mammy and the Jezebel. These still seem to be the two with the most staying power and the most negativity associated with them. Strong black woman and angry black woman at least imply some level of control and power. The Mammy is the servant of white folks, and the Jezebel is the victim of her own sexual impulses and lack of moral character. I know that some of you are even now as you read this shaking your heads and trying to think of all of the images of black women that you see in the media and pop culture and assuring yourself that black women are portrayed in myriad other ways than the mammy or the Jezebel. Keep trying.

We have Viola Davis in “The Help” being praised to the skies for her brilliant and probably soon to be Oscar-nominated performance. But, psst, she is being nominated for playing a MAID, a mammy! The same role that Hattie McDaniel won a best supporting actress Oscar for in 1939. Let’s look at the list of other black women nominated for best actress :

Year Actress Film Won or Lost
1954 Dorothy Dandridge Carmen Jones Lost
1972 Diana Ross Lady Sings the Blues Lost
1972 Cicyly  Tyson Sounder Lost
1985 Whoopi Goldberg The Color Purple Lost
1993 Angela Bassett What’s Love got to do with it? Lost
2001 Halle Berry Monster’s Ball Won
2009 Gabourey Sidibe Precious Lost

I will let you do your own research about the plots for all of the movies the black women starred in that lost, but suffice it to say none of them  happened to be a passionate love story or a story about a brilliant scientist or naturalist or international beauty. The only one who won, Halle Berry,  played a woman who was a white man’s unwilling sex slave. Is that the image that America is the most comfortable with for black women? No one with any understanding of American History could watch that movie and look at Halle Berry and not think about the Antebellum Quadroon and Octoroon Balls of old New Orleans. Certainly the idea that black women are hyper-sexual is thoroughly ingrained in the American psyche, and no, you cannot blame it on BET rap videos, it far outdates those by more than a century. If black women were virtuous ( read obedient and docile) and nurturing and big breasted they were viewed as Mammies, if they were svelte and attractive and preferably light ( a quadroon brought a much larger price than a dark-skinned woman and an octoroon brought even more) she was a Jezebel. We have not wandered far from that time established script in America today.

I would suggest that Dr. Harris-Perry’s expanded stereotypes, those of the angry black woman and the strong black woman are not actually individual characteristics, but subsets of the Mammy and Jezebel stereotypes. Think about Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy. Mammy was always angry, but also also viewed as strong. She could make Miz Scarlet do things when nobody else could, at least according to the movie. She could not, evidently, make her intervene with her father to free Mammy but even strong, angry black women have limits to their power I suppose. One of the primary black women characters in pop culture these days is Tyler Perry’s Medea. A strong, angry, Mammy, his movies are popular, well attended by both black and white people. Again, we are comfortable with an obscene, irrational, violent, black woman. Unfortunately, that stereotype is present in classrooms, boardrooms and corporate offices. A black woman with a point of view who is willing to defend it is varying from the general two accepted stereotypical roles, those of Mammy or Jezebel. She is not comforting, she is not nurturing, she is not overtly sexual, what are people to think of her? What box does she fit into? In other words she is not what is expected and not what is approved of.One of the reasons Michelle Obama is so annoying to some people is that she does not fit the box. Although she seems to be a good, nurturing  mother and wife,that is obviously not how she defines herself. And, her appearance is too phenotypically black to be considered attractive by some.  So, she fails as Mammy and as Jezebel. That does not stop some critics, however. I saw an article in one of the grocery store check-out lines that accused her of having an affair with one of her husband’s cabinet members. Odd, I do not remember the tabloids accusing Hillary or Laura of doing the horizontal hula with a man other than her husband. Guess they were not Jezebel bait.

I must make a point here that not only black women are put into these roles, particularly that of Mammy. Wherever you work I do not imagine it is the males in the office who generally organize the parties and celebrations and buy the cards and call the caterer to order the food. I do not imagine that most of the plants that can be found in the office are on the desks of males, unless, that is, they are taken care of by females. And when someone gets married, or buried who organizes the institutional response most of the time? Women in general  no matter what color they are are often painted  with the Mammy brush. And one could stretch the social imperative  for women to be attractive to at least the same neighborhood as that inhabited by Jezebel.

Both stereotypes are, however, more egregiously applied to black women. American society has been struggling for at least three hundred years to decide what we are and what we should be.  Unfortunately, as shown by the 1939 reward for McDaniel and the looming 2012 reward for Davis Mammy seems to be at least part of the answer. I am going to borrow, and bastardize,  a line by Butterfly McQueen, ” I don’t know nothing about being no Mammy!” , and I am not about to learn. ( I am both too old and too thick to be a Jezebel!)


Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Race, Social Justice


2 responses to “The Mammy and the Jezebel: The images of black women in American Society

  1. Judy O

    July 16, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Mammy was always ANGRY????? Pretty bossy, maybe, like a lot of folks “in charge” of something. But ANGRY???? I found her to be strong, confident, caring, modest, and compassionate. Something wrong with that?

    • minerva5

      July 16, 2012 at 5:05 pm

      Tell me when she smiled.


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