South LA

California African American Museum holds exhibit exploring a racist representation of black women

The museum displays the history of an insidious Jim Crow-Era stereotype still seen in films and books.

The California African American Museum is hosting a new exhibition called Making Mammy: A Caricature of Black Womanhood, 1840–1940. The exhibition delves into the racist caricature known as “mammy,” and its place in American history.

On its website, The California African American Museum, or CAAM, calls mammy “one of the most pervasive stereotypes constructed during the post-Civil War era, and arguably the most enduring image from the days of Jim Crow.” Mammy was often depicted as a “black domestic servitude was often depicted as good-natured, overweight, and loud.”

The mammy character was used during slavery to push the idea that enslaved people were happy with their situation, according to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University. The university’s website goes on to explain that mammy was portrayed as having endless loyalty to the white family she worked for while she neglected her own.

The nature of mammy and the subject matter the exhibit tackled provoked a multitude of emotions within the hundreds of museum goers that visit the exhibit, according to Shelly Bruce, the gallery guide at CAAM. These emotions range from discomfort, to appreciation and even gratitude.

“I think it's an uncomfortable exhibit for some people because they are experiencing a lot of racist imagery and historic imagery,” Bruce said. “Some people are also appreciative because often [times] these images aren't shown, and ultimately people are grateful because it's an educational experience for them to remember some of these stereotypes that often are forgotten or not talked about.”

According to CAAM, the exhibit explores mammy’s legacy, historically contextualizing the caricature’s use as a way to “temper the atrocities of enslavement” and “serve southern interests.” The exhibit also seeks to shine light on mammy’s presence within American film and the role that industry has played.

“Los Angeles has been important in distilling and popularizing negative stereotypes of black women through the film and television industry in particular,” said Brenda Stevenson, one of the curators for the exhibit. “These stereotypes were always already very popular in the public imagination and had been since the 19th century, what the film industry [did was] pick up on how people like these images [and portray them in their films].”

Mammy characters have appeared in a number of famous American films, including “Gone with the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation,” in which a mammy “defends her white master's home against black and white Union soldiers,” according to the Jim Crow Museum. The museum’s website states that the message this sent was that “Mammy would rather fight than be free.”

“The mammy stereotype is something that we find as an institution very important to remind people of,” said Bruce. “This pervasive negative imagery that has not only infiltrated American media and culture from the past, but even sometimes influences that culture today,” Bruce said.

In one section of the exhibit, which is set up like a mini movie theater, visitors can view clips from historical films that portrayed mammy.

“We have several films that display different cartoons, music and films that have examples of the specific mammy caricature,” Bruce said. “Some of those famous clips are from ‘The Birth of a Nation’ film. There's also [a] film clip from ‘Gone with the Wind.’”

In another section of the Making Mammy exhibit, visitors can have a close look at physical artifacts, such as porcelain mammy figurines and dolls, most of which are wearing red dresses and a simple head wrap. The exhibit also explores mammy’s representation in everything from books to household items.

“There are some domestic items that are used in the home in the kitchen,” Bruce said. “There are some printed materials from music that was created around the mammy caricature, [and] we have some original printed books.”

Bruce, who is also a black woman, said she likes the discomfort this exhibit conveys to its visitors. For the gallery guide, it’s important for people to be reminded of the negative history and pervasive stereotypes that still impact African Americans today.

“I like this exhibit because it makes people a little uncomfortable and it reminds them of some uncomfortable and negative truths about our American culture that we don't think about very often,” Bruce said.

The Making Mammy exhibition will be on display at the California African American Museum until March 1.