Today I’ve been working on a literary lesson plan on black minstrel tropes. Lesson planning always has me in my feelings. Particularly when it comes to images. Grappling with what people see in their minds when they think of black women…it’s maddening. And that all starts with mammy.
But when I think of mammy, I think of this:
This is “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” by artist Betye Saar. And it’s the shotgun that resonates with me the most. Every time I see mammy’s apron, I imagine she has one hidden underneath.
The reality is something much more mundane. Like women waiting on a Bronx street corner for a white employer to come along and offer them a day’s work.
Or a black maid adding the finishing touches to a cake.
But this is not the image America comes up with in her mind. She thinks of someone like Mammy Jane, who never had kids of her own but gave her life to the white children in her care.
“My old black mammy.” Who never had a name. But she was mine.
She remembers Aunt Jemima…sans shotgun. And she remembers her fondly.
I wish she would forget. I wish she would replace her old mammy with the dignified faces of the women who occupy my imagination. The ones who stash money in coffee cans to see their children’s smiling faces on Christmas morning. The women who wash and iron until their hands are tired to make sure that their families eat. The ones who are heavy handed with the pepper to keep the Mrs. out of the kitchen. The women who carry shotguns hidden in their aprons. This is all wishful thinking of course…I mentioned that I was in my feelings right? Ah well. I suppose my fantasies of revolution will remain on the cutting room floor…for now anyway.