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Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America.

Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America. By Micki McElya. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. i, 322. $27.95.)

In 1893 Nancy Green--former slave and black domestic--debuted as "Aunt Jemima" at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in a marketing ploy for the R. T. Davis Milling Company's ready-mix pancake formula. Micki McElya's engaging study examines the creation of the "Aunt Jemima" trademark and places this story within the larger context of the evolution of the "mammy" trope in American culture, concentrating on the years surrounding the Great Migration. Much of McElya's study follows the approach of David Blight and others who have investigated the construction of public memory, particularly uses of the Civil War in American memory. McElya similarly explores southern whites' attempts to delimit black agency by public exercises intended to recall a mythologized legacy of race relations, such as the attempt to create a memorial statue of "mammy" in the nation's capital (approved by Congress soon after the defeat of the Dyer antilynching bill).

A compelling example of this struggle is white upper-class women's participation in the blackface minstrel tradition through their impersonations of "mammy" on the Chautauqua circuit (which prefigures the actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll's hit radio show Amos 'n' Andy, which premiered in 1928, not noted by McElya). McElya then moves beyond public memory, exploring the sensationalized Chicago custody battle over a young white girl taken from her black surrogate mother. She also examines how white employers sought to limit demands for better pay by black women working as domestics by invoking the work ethic (read racial subservience) typified by the mythical figure of mammy. McElya includes such gems as the Black Mammy Institute, founded in 1910 to instruct a new generation of young black women in the skills necessary for true "service" to their white employers, making this history read at times like wickedly unbelievable satire (reminiscent of the faux commercials in the film CSA [Confederate States of America] based on real advertisements using racist caricatures).

McElya concludes with the chilling observation that historic ephemera produced as part of the marketing schemes trafficking in the faithful slave stereotype, specifically the "mammy" figure, have become valuable "collector's" items, thus capitalizing a second time on these recycled commodities. What McElya ignores is perhaps a more complex and ambiguous point, that much of the market for "black collectibles" is driven by African American consumers, including Oprah Winfrey. As McElya briefly notes, not all African Americans protested the reification of the mammy myth. Still, she does not explore the ways in which some African Americans, like Green herself, participated in what Houston Baker Jr. and David Levering Lewis have poignantly called the self-commodification of black expressiveness. As Doris Witt cautions in Black Hunger (to which McElya is clearly indebted), we must interpret the updated trademark of Aunt Jemima in ways that also acknowledge its new historical context--one in which the idealization of black free labor central to a postreconstruction America has been replaced by the demonization of black female appetites for consumption in a postindustrial, depressed economy. Perhaps McElya will chronicle this development in a future work that she has merely gestured to here.

Catherine A. Stewart

Cornell College
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Author:Stewart, Catherine A.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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