A few months ago a friend directed me to YouTube to watch a lecture given by Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry at University of California at Santa Barbara. Her central thesis was the continued representation of the “mammy” image in popular culture (see below).
Like many scholars, Harris-Perry saw the critical acclaim and box office popularity of The Help as an example of just how deeply embedded in the American psyche the “mammy” image is, and that the movie’s representation was an extension of the national mammy monument proposal of the 1920s as well as the emodiment of the point made by author Miki McElya’s in her book, Clinging to Mammy.
One need only walk around New York City’s upper east-side and see the scores of black women serving as nanny’s to white infants and toddlers to see that there is “some” merit to Harris-Perry’s perspective. Nonetheless, she took it over the top. It’s one thing to compare a movie about black maids to Hattie McDaniels’ Gone With the Wind performance as a slave/mammy, but Harris-Perry also labeledJennifer Hudson’s performance as Sarah Jessica Parker’s assistant in the movie Sex and The City mammy-esque. Such an assertion essentially conflates all presentations of black women as sidekick characters of mammy status and ignores the significant dramatic variety in black female visual presentations since Hattie McDaniels 73 years ago.
Harris-Perry, is brilliant and one of the most important black public intellectuals we have, so my goal is not to pick on her. But on the topic of black images, I’d like to see at least a nod to newer representations. I see a fascinating irony in a black female college professor lecturing to a largely white collegiate audience about the preponderance of black mammy images in the American popular culture. That she did so while wearing a decidedly Africentric cornrowed hairstyle is an excellent starting point to examine the “non mammy” impact of black female imagery in popular culture.
Relatively few people would recognize the name of the character Jane Foster. Yet this character is at least as important culturally as “mammy”. Foster was a groundbreaking black female character played by Cicely Tyson in the short-lived 1963-64 TV drama, East Side West Side. She played George C. Scott’s secretary. Though she was Scott’s “subordinate”, her personality was fully fleshed out; of equal importance was her visual presentation. She wore her hair “naturally”, and at times in the show wore her hair in cornrows. This was a visual break from the “handkerchief head” image of Aunt Jemima in the midst of the civil rights era and at the time caused a bit of a stir. The importance of this visual break can’t be understated, and the following passage from Stephen Battaglio’s David Suskind: A Televised Life cogently describes this impact (see excerpt here):
“One aspect of Tyson’s TV presence was stirring debate in the black community—her natural hairstyle. Short, kinky and unprocessed, it enhanced the perfect roundness of the top of her head. She was beautiful by any standard except perhaps by the one set by white America at the time. Her look began to change that.
‘My hair started the whole natural trend in this country’, Tyson said. Natural hair had long been a subject of debate in the black community and the black press, and Tyson got bags of mail on the topic. Half of the letters came from beauty salon owners and hairdressers who claimed Tyson’s look was bad for business. After seeing Tyson on East Side/West Side, customers wanted to emulate her look by cutting off their hair and no longer straightening or chemically processing it.
Others criticized her choice by saying she misused the tremendous platform she had been given on a show watched by millions of people—most of them white—each week. “They said I was in a position to extol the beauty of black women and instead I was destroying it by wearing my hair in that fashion,” she said. She understood the sentiment. ‘We had been brainwashed to believe that we had no worth at all unless it’s ratified by whites,’ she said. It’s taken us a long time to recognize our beauty. We were brainwashed to believe our beauty was miniscule in the scheme of things. That included our nappy hair. So we were to follow the pattern of straight hair. That was the model for us to follow—I dared not to.
Nearly 50 years later, Tyson’s choice continues to resonate in the multitude of ways black women currently wear their hair. The fact that Harris-Perry is able to wear her hair naturally and be respected as a thinking black woman, can be tied directly to Tyson’s Foster. Of more importance, the character of Jane Foster launched the career of Cicely Tyson—an actress whose legacy of portraying fully formed black women struck and continues to strike a significant counter to “mammy”.
Similarly, just as Tyson the actress has had substantial impact on the psyche of black women and how they present themselves to the public. Tyson’s Jane Foster smart, professionalism, changed popular culture’s presentation of black women. Jane Foster created the underpinning’s for character’s like Nicole Nichelle’s iconic Lt. Uhuru in Star Trek, Diahann Carrol’s Julia, Gail Fisher’s Emmy award winning portrayal of secretary Peggy Fair, in the ‘60s and ‘70s private eye TV series Mannix, Jo Ann Pringle’s assistant high school principal Sybil Buchanan in the White Shadow, and even Regina Taylor’s college president Judith Hackett Bryant in the short-lived 2001 television series The Education of Max Bickford.
If one wanted to quibble, with the exception of Julia one could make the case each of these characters were still “second fiddle” to the stars of the show. Though this is true, the distinction here is that they were second fiddle in terms of the story arcs of their respective shows, they nonetheless were “first class citizens” and not socially subordinate to their “bosses” on the shows. They were equals. Something “mammy” never was.
Second fiddle quibbles could not be made about ABC’s 1974 series Get Christie Love starring Teresa Graves. Though seldom discussed as groundbreaking television, the show has historical significance. It was the first hour long TV show where a woman, white or black, was the star and its creation encapsulated the impact of blaxploitation heroines Pam Grier and Tamara Dodson in their roles of Coffy and Foxy Brown (Grier) and Cleopatra Jones (Dodson).
Admittedly, the movies starring Grier and Dodson were campy fare, and Get Christie Love was equally so, but they bore no resemblance to “mammy”. These physically (not to be confused with sexually) assertive black female characters had never been seen before on the big or small screen, and laid a groundwork for white butt-kicking, crime fighting heroines like Angie Dickinson’s Police Woman, and Charlie’s Angels, as well as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the movie Aliens.
Taking that notion of black female imagery influencing popular culture a step further, it should be noted that the cornrow hairstyle I mentioned earlier also became something of a mainstream fashion trend in 1979 when white actress Bo Derek, sported it in the movie 10. These instances of black female imagery influencing white women as well as black, illustrates the multi-layered impact of popular culture imagery, and a feather in the cap for the reach of black female imagery completely unrelated to the mammy.
Though I know that women’s hairstyles and their ability to beat up bad guys doesn’t directly address Harris-Perry’s point about the legacy of inequality inherent in the “mammy” image, my assertion is that Tyson’s Jane Foster and Graves’ Christie Love both informed black female images significantly enough to undercut the low expectations and life occupations that were the hallmark of the mammy. Rather, it was about how in many ways, black women are still constrained to specific vocations and specific expectations from society at large. My assertion is that Tyson’s Jane Foster and Graves’ Christie Love both informed black female popular culture images and anticipated the changes in perceptions of black women that continue to undercut the low expectations and life occupations that were the hallmark of mammy.
We see this impact in TV characters like S. Epatha Merkerson’s long running Lt. Van Buren in Law and Order, Jill Scott’s Precious Ramotswe in the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Christina Hawthorne in Hawthorne, Regina King’s Lydia Adams in Southland, Jennifer Beal’s Teresa Colvin inChicago Code, and Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, in ABC’s hit series Scandal.
Each of these characters are representative of the modern smart, professional, independent black females that occupy all strata of American life. The “mammy” analysis fails to explain the existence of these fictional or real life black women.
Acknowledging the exisitence of stereotypes is important work, but many of our critics are obsessed with them. So much so, that they fail to recognize the works created to offset those stereotypes, and ignore the fact that those works have infused real-life black people with the psychological capital to move forward in our American journey while simultaneously giving mainstream Americans important cultural references in our quest for egalitarianism. That Dr. Harris-Perry can command millions of TV viewers weekly on her MSNBC show, is much more a consequence of these works than a reinforcement of the legacy of mammy.