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What Should I Know about the Mammy Archetype?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The mammy archetype is a racial stereotype which originated in the United States. Many people find this archetype racist and offensive, but it still crops up in American entertainment, advertising, and culture, and a few examples can even be found on the shelves of most American grocery stores. Because of the negative associations with the negative archetype, the slang term “mammy” for “mother” is viewed as offensive in some regions of the United States, especially in reference to a black woman.

This racial stereotype has its origins in slavery. The classic mammy archetype depicts an large black woman, dressed in bright, bold colors, usually with a rag over her head. She is typically good-natured, and often motherly, with a broad smile on her face. She is also loud and sometimes blunt, in addition to being motherly, occasionally sassing back to people as a way of getting them to behave. In visual depictions, the mammy's lips are often grossly exaggerated and cartoonish, and she may have extremely large hips and heavily kinky hair under her head covering.

Black female slaves were often used as nurses for white children in the days of slavery. The stereotype of an overweight, kindly nurse was widely duplicated in the American South in the 1700s and 1800s. Somewhat uniquely in a slave-owning society, the “mammy” had authority over white children, but this authority was usually tempered with fear, and the relationship between the slave and her charges was inherently unequal, not least because many black nursemaids had their own children taken away and sold or raised by other women.

The mammy archetype appears frequently in books and artwork produced during the slave era in the United States, and she was commonly included in blackface minstrel shows and other entertainments meant to appeal to a white audience. After slavery was abolished, the mammy archetype lived on, appearing in advertisements which were meant to evoke the “Old South,” and in novels, films, and other forms of entertainment. She has become very familiar to many Americans, including those who are not familiar with the racially charged history of the archetype.

One of the classic examples of the mammy stereotype is Aunt Jemima, the fictional character behind a line of breakfast foods. While the face which appears on the packaging today is simply that of a relatively benign black woman, some of the historical packaging showed the mammy archetype in full flower, complete with huge lips and hips and a motherly appearance. The black community has periodically expressed discontent about particularly blatant examples of the archetype, but the continued use of this racial stereotype suggests that defeating it may be an uphill battle.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By ZipLine — On Mar 21, 2014

@candyquilt-- That may be true but the mammy archetype is different in the US. It's a black, slave woman who works for a white American family. The archetype was developed by whites and portrayed as whites wanted to see it. So it is racist and it is offensive.

By candyquilt — On Mar 20, 2014

@turquoise-- You have a point, archetypes are universal.

How many people know that the mammy archetype exists outside of the United States? The mammy archetype, for example, was an important archetype in Turkish cinema from the 1950s to the 1970s. And the archetype had nothing to do with slavery. Africans were not slaves in the Ottoman Empire. They were regular citizens who were sometimes employed to help in the household, as nannies or as cooks. But in Turkish films, the mammy archetype is part of the family. She doesn't only take care of the children, she sits and eats with the household and is together with them at all times. There are even examples when the mammy archetype doesn't do any work and simply resides with the family.

Archetypes have to be universal. They cannot have different meanings in different places. So I also don't feel that the mammy archetype is racist.

By turquoise — On Mar 20, 2014

I think that if people take offense to the mammy archetype, it's more because of American history and slavery, rather than the archetype itself.

Archetypes can at times be exaggerated, because they are meant o be people, symbols or concepts that a reader or audience can pick up on immediately. The exaggeration of this character and her appearance should be seen as a way of artistic depiction. I think that those exaggerations make the character more lovable and more close to heart which is exactly what is trying to be achieved.

There is no doubt that this archetype developed and emerged during a time of slavery. That's a reality we can't deny but I don't think that the mammy archetype should be attached to the idea of slavery any longer.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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