Black Excellence: Mammy
I’ll be honest, when I got to work this morning I had no idea that it was the last day of Black History Month. It wasn’t until my coworker came up to my desk at 5 o’ clock and said, “Happy Leap Day!” that I realized that it was the last day of the longest Black History Month for the next 3 years. So I went home, pondered for a few hours (aka watched Hulu), and decided to post. So, what better way to end Black Excellence Month than with a figure from the silver screen who was born on Leap Day? I present Hattie McDaniel, aka Mammy.
Hattie McDaniel is most well known as Mammy from the American classic, Gone With The Wind. Although she began her career as a comedic actress and performer, many of her roles in cinema were maids. She received heavy criticism from the African-American community for reinforcing stereotypes, either playing maids or ex-maids in the majority of her films. Some even went as far as to call McDaniel an “Uncle Tom”, to which she responded,
“Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
That’s real. In the 1940’s, many African Americans found access to some degree of social acceptance through entertainment and the arts. From music, to poetry, to film, Blacks were able to experience fortune and fame in a brazenly racist environment. McDaniel was, unfortunately, very likely to end up working in domestic service otherwise. Paper chasing aside, her accolades made undeniable marks on Black History and American cinema.
Hattie McDaniel was a professional song-writer, comedian and radio performer who also acted in television, film and on stage. Essentially, she was a female Jamie Foxx, just with a better hairline. She was a first-generation free Black, whose father fought in the Civil War. She fought against a racial restriction covenant that kept Black performers from living in the well-kept housing developments in L.A. Not to mention, she was in 300 films. Mind you, Samuel L. Jackson hasn’t been in that many.
After beating out an actual maid for the part of Mammy in Gone with the Wind (the actress playing Scarlett O’Hara wanted her real maid to play the part), the NAACP fought to have alterations made to the script to make it less racist. The original script for Gone with the Wind included repeated use of the word nigger and a scene where the KKK comes in to save Scarlett O’Hara from a group of violent Black men. Hollywood actually listened to the NAACP’s requests and altered the script.
When the movie premiered at the Loews Grand Theater in Atlanta, Black actors were barred from attending, including Hattie. On top of that, critics in the South had the audacity to say that the Mammy character was offensive because she was too familiar and sassy with the white characters. Somehow, with all of these racist and oppressive actions by those in Hollywood, Hattie McDaniel ended up with the first Academy Award ever given to an African American actress.
Yet another point of Black Excellence is Octavia Spencer winning an Oscar for best supporting actress, and Viola Davis being nominated for best actress for The Help. They played in roles that resemble that of Mammy, but in this case, they get to tell white people to “eat shit”. The Help was a light-hearted film about overcoming racial oppression in America, and a white girl coming of age. Some Black critics have complained about the reemergence of Black maids on the silver screen. Its understandable, Mo’Nique, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry all received Oscars for characters that weren’t exactly the best role models for the Black community. But as the post-racial society continues to attempt to fit its name, larger strides will continue to be made in all realms, including entertainment. There have been several Black actors who received Oscars for non-stereotypical roles, but there’s no question that there have been more actors and roles that were deserving. When we see excellence, we must support it. That doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to racism or stereotyping. People can get away with less and less racist behavior as the decades pass (even though many try to test the limits of acceptability). We continue to prove ourselves in every capacity time and time again, even though we shouldn’t need to. Congratulate your fellow brothers and sisters on their successes, anything less is divisive. Celebrate Black excellence at every opportunity.
There may be an hour left of Black History Month, but Black Excellence Month is every month.