Who’s Your Mammy?

The Help - Movie Poster“The Help” didn’t get quite as much love as expected at this year’s Academy Awards, but it was one of the more popularly beloved, acclaimed and successful Hollywood films of 2011 (as adapted from the best-selling Kathryn Stockett novel of the same name).

One noteworthy dissenting voice has been from Melissa Harris-Perry, the acclaimed in her own right academic and socio-cultural critic who recently debuted her own TV show on MSNBC (Melissa Harris-Perry, Saturday and Sunday mornings from 10:am to noon, Eastern Time).


Melissa Harris-Perry MSNBC

Melissa Harris-Perry MSNBC

Last Saturday, in a sort of Oscar-preview moment, she discussed “The Help” along with Elon James White (creator/host of “This Week in Blackness” and “Blacking It Up”), Barbara Young of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Micki McElya, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Connecticut and author of “Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America.”

The segment runs about 20 minutes and is well worth watching. But what does it have to do with Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The answer comes most clearly from Ms. McElya in the introduction to her book “Clinging to Mammy.” She writes:

Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America By the 1850s, the southern figure of the faithful mammy was well on its way to becoming a national icon. This was ironically due in large measure to the reach of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Stowe also employed the image of faithful slaves—faithful to a Christian God, to their families and friends, and even to their owners—but she used it to emphasize the horror of their abuse and the systematic terror of slavery. The figure of the enslaved black mother ensconced within the setting of southern white domesticity became a familiar one nationally and internationally owing to the widespread sentimental appeal of the book, which was one of the most widely read works of the nineteenth century.

Stowe’s description of Uncle Tom’s wife, Aunt Chloe, may even have been the model for ensuing representations of the mammy figure. … Aunt Chloe bears an uncanny resemblance to the trademark Aunt Jemima, a figure that can in turn be traced to the minstrel stage of the nineteenth century, which generated endless adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for blackface performance. Despite the apparent contradiction, the role of the powerful abolitionist novel in promoting the faithful slave narrative is actually not surprising. The middle-class northern reading public that fueled the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin prefigured the public that would romanticize the plantation South after Reconstruction. And the same sentimental characteristics that humanized enslaved people in Stowe’s eyes were present in the paternalistic myths espoused by the proslavery writers who challenged her critique.

From Stowe’s characters to Stockett’s then, we can certainly draw a direct line of lineage. Whether Harris-Perry and her panel judge them too harshly I’ll leave you to decide for yourself.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Reconsidered DVD - The Slave Auction

History is full of examples of positive works and deeds having unintended negative consequences and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a perfect example. The original novel – and the early stage versions such as the Aiken play recreated on our DVD – are widely acknowledged as having been a powerful force in the movement to abolish slavery in America. Yet many of the other derivative works, works over which Stowe had no influence or control, created and/or promoted damaging racial stereotypes that have affected race relations ever since; many of which still plague us today. Many of them are addressed in the source book PDF that is a part of our program.

It is fascinating to try to list and balance out all the ways in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in its many forms and variations, ultimately did harm vs. good. In the final analysis though, just as fascinating is to realize and understand how important and relevant it remains, even today, 160 years after the book was first published.