Recent research has confirmed that the mammy was almost entirely invented from whole cloth. She appears, for certain, in the post-Civil War memoirs and novels of writers attempting to reclaim the memory of the Old South; but she is almost entirely absent from the oral histories of former slaves recorded by the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s. Jessie W. Parkhurst first exposed the fictional sources and equally fictive characteristics attributed to the mammy in her 1938 article, The Role of the Black Mammy in the Plantation Household. Nearly fifty years later, Catherine Clinton confirmed Parkhurst’s findings: “The Mammy was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between black women and white men within slave society in response to the antislavery attack from the North during the antebellum era, and to embellish it with nostalgia in the post-bellum period. In the primary records from before the Civil War, hard evidence for her existence simply does not appear.” And in timing the appearances of the mammy, Cheryl Thurber concludes from her review of the principle sources of white Southern writings, that “references to mammy in the Confederate Veteran magazine, American popular songs, memoirs, and fiction confirm that more was written about the mammy at the turn of the century than during the antebellum period, the Civil War, or Reconstruction. The real expansion of the mammy mythology coincided with Progressivism, the New South movement, and the later phases of the Confederate Lost Cause movement.” The mammy icon served as a mean of retrieval of the Old South, but it also functioned as an oppositional icon to the mulatta as well as a complementary construction to the Southern belle.
The mammy icon functioned as a buttress to the utopian construction of the imagined Old South. The mammy confirmed the notion that in the Old South and the New South, race relations were mediated by nurturing love and kindness. The icon – middle-aged or older, over-weight, de-eroticized Black woman – negated the rape ok Black women by white men, transferring the responsibility for hundreds of thousands of mixed-race individuals to the Black rapist. Thurber reminds us that Herbert Gutman, in his The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, had concluded that “most black domestic workers in white households were young single women,” and William Alexander Percy, in his memoir Lanterns on the Levee (1941), had described his mammy accordingly: “Nain was sixteen, divinely café-au-lait.” In reality, rather than the perverted mythology, this sexually charged circumstance had predictable outcomes. As Darlene Clark Hine has observed, “Virtually every known nineteenth-century female slave narrative contains a reference to, at some juncture, to ever-present threat and reality of rape.” But the mammy icon displaced the Harriet Jacobses, the Elizabeth Keckleys, and the Nanis. And in their place was constructed the Southern belle, the beautiful, childlike, white female who incited the lust of Black men. This fantastic crime rationalized the lynching of black males, transfiguring political violence (intimidation of black voters, disfranchisement) into acts of moral justice. And as Thurber notes, the popularity of the icons of the mammy and the Southern belle reached their heights simultaneously during the early twentieth century.
Forgeries of Memory & Meaning: Blacks & the Regimes of Race in American Theater & Film Before World War II, páginas 60-61, de Cedric J. Robinson.