The Controlling Image of the Mammy 

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Theoretical framework

Ain’t I a Woman by Bell hooks examines the impact of sexism combined with racism on African American women. hooks writes that black women have excluded themselves from the feminist movement because they have been faced with the “harsher” tool of oppression that is racism, and that they are scared to admit the equally oppressive “harshness” of sexism (3). African-Americans only sought equal citizenship rights and they accepted their cultural subordination, and black women especially were taught that their liberation lied in their ability to adjust to their subordination as women and as black. hooks explains how modern-day oppression of black women traces back to the slave era where female slaves were less valued than male slaves, although they often performed both “male” and “female” labor. The rape of African American slaves was labeled as prostitution by abolitionists and was blamed on the black woman’s savage sexual appetite. In an attempt to “shift the focus of attention away from sexuality”, black women emphasized “their commitment to motherhood” and providing for their family (70). In order to de-value these seemingly good attributes, white male bourgeoisie created the negative stereotypes of, for instance, the Mammy, Matriarch, and Jezebel. hooks explains that all these myths are “anti-woman” as they discredit en de-value what is considered to be women’s work while at the same forcing the women to stay within the boundaries of the female sphere, literally and figuratively. The biases are also anti-black, which makes the black woman a victim of both racist and sexist oppression from white men and women, and black men (70).
Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment also takes a theoretical approach to explaining the black woman’s role and status in the context of a white patriarchal system. In hooks work I focused on the historical aspects that have led to the controlling mythical images applied to African American women, but in Hill Collins’ book I delved into the construction of, and the different aspects of, the actual stereotypes. Hill Collins says that the purpose of her work is to both empower black women by educating them on the root of, and the practice of, systematical oppression of them as both black and women. The definition of a family, created by a “white elite,” is problematic for African Americans, not only does it require a heterosexual relationship; it also requires a patriarch and a subordinate stay-at-home mother, and a division between the public and the private sphere. The difficulties stem from the slave era, when African American were denied the right to, or the possibility of, a division between the two spheres. During slavery black men and women were forced to live at their workplace, which put them under constant supervision of their masters. Similar to what hooks touched upon, female slaves were denied the right to foster their and their slave-master’s children, which changed the definition of motherhood for them. The longer black women could continue bearing children for their slave-owners and other slaves, the longer they got to stay at that estate with their friends among the slaves. After the emancipation, black women continued working, because their husbands were denied a family wage. Therefore even after slavery, African-Americans could still not conform to the white patriarchal definition of a family. In today’s society where many African American families have two incomes, it is through controlling myths and stereotypes such as the Mammy and the Matriarch, that black women are still excluded from the white definitions of “woman” and “mother.” Hill Collins describes black women as “the Other”; as an image of not belonging created to “emphasize the significance of belonging” (70). One might argue that women like Oprah and the First Lady shows us the ability to belong in white society, but these women are exceptions to the general rule.
Similar to what hooks says about black motherhood, Hill Collins writes that the controlling image of “the superstrong Black mother” is praised by African American male thinkers, an image that controls black women in the sense that it requires the continuance of them putting their needs secondary to everyone else, in order “to remain on this pedestal” (174). Hooks explained that black motherhood was given derogatory stereotypes by whites, but according to Hill Collins the praise of black motherhood is also detrimental to black women’s freedom. I do not agree with this, as the praise of black mothers will lead to an appreciation for their work and a higher social status, something that will give them the respectability that they lack today. Also the praise of the black mother in her motherhood role will lead to a larger appreciation of the unpaid domestic work that she does, which will lead to the African American men committing to the paid work in the public sphere to financially provide for their family. The lack of appreciation of the unpaid domestic work is what makes the woman in the heterosexual couple do all the household work by herself, and then share the financial responsibilities with her significant other by also working outside her home.
Hill Collins continues by explaining the different trials that one runs into when mothering daughters. She writes: “Understanding this goal of balancing the need for the physical survival of their daughters with the vision of encouraging them to transcend the boundaries of the sexual politics of Black womanhood explains many apparent contradictions in Black mother-daughter relationships” (185). One of these contradictions is the overly protective and stern black mother who fosters independent young women.
Julia Jordan-Zachery’s Black Women, Cultural Images, and Social Policy, similarly to Hill Collins’ work, focuses on explaining the actual stereotypes and not on their origin. Also, Jordan-Zachery examines how these images influence policy making in the United States. Therefore this work concentrates on a shorter time period than the other works. She continues and states that black women are judged on how well they resemble “good womanhood” and motherhood, which is impossible for them because of social and racial factors (33). These are the factors that Hill Collins claims hinders African-American families from fitting in to the definition of “a good family”. The Mammy and Matriarch were sexist images of black women and women in general, created to exclude black women from society by making them seem like binary oppositions to white women, but they were also created to scare white women away from adopting the negative characteristics that we find in these stereotypes. For example, the Mammy is kind, loving and protective of her white family. These are characteristics that all women, including white women, should imitate. But the Matriarch on the other hand is violent and outspoken which is considered to be typically male. By designing this image in this way all black women are excluded from what is considered normal and appropriate, and all white women are taught to be quiet and “pleasant”. These images are thus oppressive of black women, but also white women, as they are both sexist and racist. The stereotypes were also created as a means of exploitation. Jordan-Zachery claims that the Mammy icon was formed to be non-threatening, to make whites feel comfortable enough to have her in their home, but also aggressive enough to make whites believe that she could keep the other slaves in place and protect them “from other blacks” (37). The author describes the Matriarch as “the black motherhood in the black household” and she is created to be blamed for many of the problems within the black community (42).

The Controlling Image of the Mammy

The Mammy is an African American female domestic worker who works for a white family. She cares for the children in a motherly fashion and she also takes care of the house, not only because she is obligated to but also because she wants to keep in its best state. The Mammy loves the family that she works for and therefore she is not burdened by fostering and nurturing them. hooks states that the Mammy was designed to be so nurturing and loving because “it epitomized the ultimate sexist-racist vision of ideal black womanhood – complete submission to the will of whites” (84). This makes the Mammy a prototype of society’s opinion on what role that black women should play. “True” womanhood is partially being a mother, and during slavery black women were not seen as mothers but as sources of commodity which gave them a lesser societal value as mothers. Hill Collins declares that the controlling image of the Mammy was created to justify exploitation of house slaves, and that it is a “normative yardstick” that all black women are evaluated against. The Mammy represents the dominant group’s ideal relationship between black females and the white elite but it also portrays the desire that black women have to be a part of white society. This desire is so great that she is happily submissive to her white masters. The black woman is not considered to be neither a “true” mother nor a “true” lady by the white society because although she is well-mannered, being a “lady” has more to do with race than good behavior.
The Mammy is also a submissive character that has accepted her subordination to her white master. She accepts her status as a sexless black servant and is grateful for her role in “her” white family. Ultimately, the Mammy is considered to be happy. Because she is so loving and nurturing, the Mammy is described in media as equally loved in return. This is fabricated to conceal the reality of the economic exploitation of house slaves and (later on) maids.
The character Polly might seem like a typical Mammy at first glance. The narrator describes the house that she works in as a beautiful white mansion with a great many flowers in a wheelbarrow. The narrator says: “Short crocus blades sheathed the purple-and-white hearts that so wished to be first they endured the chill and rain of early spring” (106). These living, blooming spring flowers symbolize life and rebirth, the total opposite of the lifeless home that Mrs. Breedlove lives in. The house is described as “proud” and glorious. Mrs. Breedlove sees the beautiful home as her own and she takes pride in its majestic beauty.
When the MacTeer girls see Mrs. Breedlove at work in her white uniform, they describe her as beautiful and glowing. The girls smell of the delightful odors of a feast coming from the clean, white house. The white uniform that Mrs. Breedlove is wearing is literal, but it also symbolizes the whiteness that Polly embodies at her workplace. She is no longer a poor Black women, she is instead a part of a White family, and she lives like them and eats like them. This is reminiscent of Fanon’s words: “Whether he likes it or not, the black man has to wear the livery the white man has fabricated for him. Look at children’s comic books: all the Blacks are mouthing the ritual ‘Yes, boss’ ” (17).
When Pecola Breedlove accidentally drops a blueberry pie on the floor in the beautiful house, her mother panics and hysterically repeats “My floor, my floor” (109). She panics not only because of the mess that her daughter has created, but also because her two worlds have now collided and she struggles to keep them apart. Because of this collision, the young white girl has now seen a part of Mrs. Breedlove that she earlier kept concealed. Mrs. Breedlove’s aggressive reaction to the mess is because she now fears to lose her escape haven in her work place, as it has now been tainted by her uncomfortable reality.
This is one passage where the text invites the reader to inhabit the text, a technique that is used for resistance of the reductive image of the Mammy. We as readers are eased in to this passage through information of how beautiful and kind Mrs. Breedlove looks. The girls have a friendly conversation with her and she invites them in to the beautiful house with the delicious odors. The friendly tone abruptly changes when Pecola drops the pie and her mother starts beating her. The beating is very surprising and Polly becomes almost manic and struggles to finish her sentences. The beating is one surprising element that makes the reader stop and think about whether or not the mother, who here embodies the Matriarch, did the right, or even understandable, thing. It becomes difficult to just read through that segment without contemplating which of the two characters you should sympathize with. Pecola dropped the pie by accident, but she also ruined the hard of her mother. The hard work of baking the pie and cleaning the white house, and the even harder work of attaining respectability in the house. To be able to form an opinion of who is right and who is wrong. The reader is surprised again when Polly turns away from beating her daughter, only to turn to soothing the white girl. The narrator says: “Over her shoulder she spit out words to us like rotten pieces of apple” (109). The text resists the image of the Mammy by showing us that she is not as essentially happy and kind as she is portrayed. She is human and has all of these “negative” emotions, which she suppresses in order to create this joyous façade that she lives in when she is at her job. The text also resists the images of both the Mammy and the Matriarch by forcing us to step in to the characters and understand the logic behind their actions, which complicates the characters and individualizes their actions, automatically resisting the stereotypes. Not only is the house that Mrs. Breedlove works in beautiful, the people that live in it are beautiful as well. The daughter of Mrs. Breedlove’s employers is a young blonde girl who wears beautiful pink dresses and pink bedroom slippers. She looks very much like the ideal beauty that can be found on candy wrappers and on coffee mugs, and she exudes innocence. The girl calls Mrs. Breedlove “Polly” and Mrs. Breedlove speaks to the girl with kind words such as “baby,” as she hushes and soothes her.
The narrator resists the stereotype of the Mammy by describing the contrast between Pauline’s family and the family that she works for. The text describes the Breedlove family as poor and black, but mostly “relentlessly and aggressively ugly” (38). The narrator calls the ugliness “unique” (38). Pauline’s ugliness is “unique” because she lets it consume her life and guide her choices, and no one can change her mind about it. As the text implies, it is this ugliness within that keeps the family in their terrible home in Lorain, Ohio, and not their financial state or their skin tone. The text describes the ugliness as “relentless” and “aggressive,” which enables us to understand the almost physical power of this ugliness. It is more than skin deep; it is a force that is stronger than the character’s sense of logic and reality.
The emphasis on the uniqueness of this ugliness can be seen as resistance to the stereotype of Polly as a representative of all black women. By describing Polly’s ugliness as unique, it shows the reader that black women are not all the same. Not all Black women feel this ugly, and the ones that actually do feel ugly do not all feel this passive under the relentless and aggressive force of their ugliness. Also, Polly’s internal ugliness and hurt is described in resistance to the cheerful Mammy stereotype. Polly is not content with her life; she is so weak and desperate to escape her situation that she retreats into the home of her white employers. Working for them is a better alternative than taking care of her own ugly family, and therefore the happiness that she expresses when she is at her job is not a reflection of how well her employers treat her; it is rather a reflection of her desperation bordering on lunacy. The text is criticizing our society’s constant need of imitating others, especially people of famous people of status such as actors, singers and athletes. That need origins in the discomfort and un-satisfaction that people feel in their own lives, which in itself is a direct result of the glamorous “Hollywood-life” that we are taught to idolize.
The narrator also informs us that the white family gave Pauline her first nickname – Polly. Kuenz says about the nickname: “Finally it is easier for Pauline to ignore that both the name and the anecdotes are condescending and exemplative of her subordinate, and ultimate outsider, status in the Fisher household” (425). I do not agree with this statement, as “Polly” is more of a term of endearment.
The text also resists the stereotype of the Mammy by explaining how horrific Polly’s own home really is. The text describes Polly’s home as dead and loveless, and therefore Polly’s workplace becomes an escape from the terrible reality. Polly’s love for the white household and hate for her own dark house could be seen as a symbol for self-hatred towards her blackness. This clashes with, and resists, the filmic depictions of the Mammy while at the same time criticizing our culture’s perception of happiness as a result of acquisition of material things.
The house the Breedloves live in is an abandoned storefront. It is described as a house that stands out in its ugliness, as it does not blend in with its surroundings. The most interesting thing that can be noted about the house is the furniture and even it “had aged without ever having become familiar” (35). The house is also described with a stench, a symbol for the inability for most people to live in the house. “And the joylessness stank, pervading everything,” the narrator says, explaining how it is the lack of joy, the void, that leaves the family members unsettled in the house (35). The joylessness pervades all the things and humans in the house which is why Polly flees to her job and fears a collision of her work life and her home life. She cannot let the joylessness pervade her job as well. No wonder that Polly, the woman who loves the movies and is obsessed with physical beauty, falls in love with her workplace. The text says that because of the beauty of the white house “she became what is known as an ideal servant, for such a role filled practically all of her needs” (127).
Another way of the resisting the Mammy is by telling us about Polly’s background. The text explains the history behind Polly which individualizes, and maybe even excuses, Polly’s behavior and situation. Lara Fulton claims that Pauline wears her hides under her blackness, and embraces all stereotypes “that equate it with ugliness and servitude” (34). The the historical background shows us Pauline in a time before she was developed a love for white ideals and a self-hate towards her blackness. It is through this historical background that we get a clearer perception of Pauline and how she is a product of her environment and background. Therefore it is impossible for her to represent all black females, as all black women have encountered different obstacles and set-backs.
We learn that Pauline Williams grew up in a red house on the countryside as the 9th of a total of 11 children. At the age of two, she hurt her foot on a rusty nail which left her with a limp. Pauline lets this deformity define her and blames it for her alienation from the rest of her family. At the age of 15 Pauline’s simple lonely hobbies of doing house chores no longer seems to fulfill her emotional needs. She hits puberty and begins to dream about strange men and soft embraces. She meets Cholly, a young black boy who acknowledges her deformed foot instead of ignoring it. When the two get married and move to the North, Pauline feels lonely and becomes dependent on Cholly which causes him to dislike her. The dependency along with Mrs. Breedlove’s new found expensive love for makeup and fashion takes a toll at their marriage. Pauline takes a day job to finance her new lifestyle which only increases the couple’s marital problems, subsequently leading to the loss of her day job.
The idea of the ideal family is created by the white elite in the United States. The stereotype is created to control the general masses, but also to separate them into two great divisions: the normal and “the other.” Hill Collins proposes that “two elements of the traditional family are especially problematic for African-American women” (47). The first element is the division between paid employment in the public sphere and unpaid work in the private sphere. In the United States, middle-class women are traditionally expected to be housewives and do unpaid private labor, while men are expected to perform paid labor in the public sphere. With more and more women working, black and white, many families today differ from the traditional nuclear family structure.
The first element is closely related to the second one, which are the gender roles that the division between the public and private sphere brings. Black women are considered less feminine because they work in the public sphere instead of staying at home with their children. Thus, black women compete with black men in the job market.
When Polly takes a day job, her husband feels de-masculinized. Although Cholly was previously aggravated by his wife’s dependency on him, he becomes even more aggravated by her independence. The text resists the stereotype of the black woman as weak by making Polly her own caretaker, but she also reinforces the stereotype of black men as sexist. Cholly fell in love with Pauline when she had no confidence. When he suspects that she is growing a confidence and becoming her own person outside of him, he feels intimidated. Ultimately, he shows up at her job which causes her to lose it. The text is criticizing the root of sexism and identifying it as intimidation and lack of confidence. The text is also criticizing men’s need to be in control of women, and describes it as irrational and childish.
When Polly asks her employer for a loan, after she has fired her, she receives the advice to leave her husband. Pauline says: “Then I got so desperate I asked her if she would loan it to me. She
was quiet for a spell, and then she told me I shouldn’t let a man take advantage over me. That I should have more respect, and it was my husband’s duty to pay the bills, and if he couldn’t, I should leave and get alimony” (120). This passage shows that these gender roles are created by a social group that already is financially set. The next few lines in the text show that these gender roles exclude people from lower social classes such as African Americans. Polly says: “All such simple stuff. What was he gone give me alimony on? I seen she didn’t understand that all I needed from her was my eleven dollars to pay the gas man so I could cook” (120-121). Polly realizes that these are demands that sound so simple but who in reality are not. The novel is her engaging the reader to understand the class differences in society and that something that is a given to one social group can be an impossibility to another one. Her husband is so poor that he cannot even afford alimony. Polly’s top priorities are to feed herself and her husband, and she is too busy surviving that she does not have any time to think of “all such simple stuff.”
In the lower class that Polly and Cholly belong to, the financial struggles overpower and overshadow the sexist gender roles. Demanding her rights as a woman is a luxury for Polly, who does not receive all her rights as a human being. Being poor, black and a female makes Polly an open target for discrimination. Therefore the text implies that feminism cannot only circulate around gender and that it has to draw attention to social differences as well. A feminist theory that only focuses on gender inequality does not cater to the needs of women in who are discriminated for more than their gender.
Hill Collins also marks that blacks have gender specific spaces that they are confided in. She writes that after the abolition, “male space included the streets, barber shops, and pool halls; female arenas consisted of households and churches” (55). When Polly starts working, Cholly is intimidated by his wife bordering on leaving the female space. Although she is still working in a household, that household is not hers, which can jeopardize her respectability. It is not by being a Mammy that Polly jeopardizes her respectability; it is by working outside of her home. Although being a maid is generally a much accepted job for women in todays’ patriarchal society, Cholly is worried that Polly might feel independent and confident enough to enter the male space, thereby blurring the boundaries of gender. The novel is here creating a sense of discomfort in the readers who have to question whether or not this is Cholly’s right as Polly’s husband. The discomfort lies in Cholly’s constant fear of Polly’s independence, he does not fear equality but he is afraid to become subordinate to her. As a black man, he is subordinate to all other racial groups and subgroups in society, except for black women. So the reader has to question whether or not his fear is understandable and can be sympathized with, and if that has any effect on our determination of what is right and wrong. The engagement of the readers together with the information we receive about the characters, makes us constantly contemplate whether or not the characters’ struggles and hardships are an excuse for their actions. Can Cholly’s actions towards his family be excused by his rough childhood and financial and racial status? Is there a fundamental right and wrong that we should all abide by, or is the decisive criterion moveable and changes regarding who commits the action?


The Controlling Image of the Matriarch

Similar to the Mammy, the Matriarch is another derogatory stereotype that is created by a white male elite in order to make racist biases and prejudice seem natural. Some scholars, such as Hill Collins and Jordan-Zachery, consider the Matriarch to be a part of the Mammy, the part that lets out the frustrations. This text will analyze the Matriarch as a part of the Mammy, these two archetypes should be seen in tandem because they are found in the same character in the text. Jordan-Zachery writes that the Mammy was designed to “servile” in order to fulfil her purpose of being a servant to a white family. Simultaneously she is aggressive “in order to maintain the status quo, in relations to other slaves to prevent their co-optation of her” (37). She was designed by white male elite as aggressive to protect the white family from dangerous black people, similar to a watch dog, but also to justify slavery and oppression of African American women. Hill Collins states that the Matriarch is the role that the black woman supposedly embodies after coming home to her black family after a long day of being the Mammy at her white family’s home. Because the working black mother spends a great deal of time away from her family, she returns to her family as a mean and aggressive person, lashing out at them as a way to release her inner aggressions that she suppressed during the day. Hill Collins writes: “From the dominant group’s perspective, the matriarch represented a failed mammy, a negative stigma to be applied to African-American women who dared reject the image of the submissive, hardworking servant” (75).
Although the Mammy is a good woman and the Matriarch is viewed as a bad woman, the Matriarch does not undermine the Mammy stereotype. It does not make us question the legitimacy of the Mammy; instead it is a stereotype that aims to represent the radical side of the women in the black community. What white society means that is that not the conditions that the Mammy/Matriarch lives in that make her a bad woman. Instead it is something in the core of the Mammy/Matriarch that is rotten, and all her “badness” is blamed on her and not the context that she lives in, and that is why she can never remove but only suppress her Matriarch side.
The Matriarch fails at being a “good mother.” Jordan-Zachery explains that the reason why she is so nurturing and caring for the white children that she works for is because she is being supervised by her white mistress. When the Mammy is not supervised, she becomes the Matriarch. Therefore it is due to the lack of white feminine supervision that the Mammy cannot care for her own children. Being a “bad” mother makes her less of a woman, and combined with leaving her children to work and not being supported by her husband, the Mammy’s “essentially inept” (39).

Table of contents :

1. Introduction 
2. Previous Criticism
3. Theoretical Framework
4. The Controlling Image of the Mammy 
5. The Controlling Image of the Matriarch
6. Other Images of Motherhood in The Bluest Eye
6.1 Mrs. MacTeer
6.2 China, Poland and Miss Marie
6.3 Geraldine
7. Conclusion 
8. Reference List


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