Mammy, Mom Beck, and McDaniel in Media
I personally love watching old movies, even in black and white. The story line and the language that is used in the past are fascinating and entertaining. However, after watching Ethnic Notions, I learned about the power of media and how it can establish stereotypes, which is so strong that it still has power to influence our thoughts. Now I am starting to see movies with a different perspective. The positive or negative implications on a certain character in the movie and even really small things such as the clothing, languages, and the location it takes place influenced and continue to influence us to have biased thoughts. The thought of it made me sad and angry because racial discrimination and stereotyping are deeply embedded in this society even through the entertaining movies.
(Shirley Temple Archive)
Little Colonel is a movie released in 1935, and the story takes place in 1870s. It is about a little girl named Lloyd Sherman. Her mother, Elizabeth, is a daughter of colonel of Confederacy, Colonel Lloyd, and little Lloyd’s father, Jack Sherman, is a man from the North who fought in the Civil war as a part of Union. The story focuses mostly on the White family and how the broken family reconciles through the little girl. Instead of talking about the White family, I will be focusing specifically on the character Mom Beck, an African American nanny who is played by Hattie McDaniel.
In the movie, the nanny Mom Beck reminded me a lot of Mammy from Ethnic Notions. Mammy is the image of typical black nanny who is subservient to the White family and protective over a child. In the documentary film Ethnic Notions, Black Mammy is depicted as a happily obedient slave who is docile and protective of her white household. Mammy is also described as strong and ugly and she is usually played by a big woman(Ethnic Notions). In Little Colonel, Mom Beck is a happy woman who cooks, cleans, and supports Sherman family. She helps Elizabeth to pack when she runs away to get married with Jack. She even follows her to the West without hesitation. Mom Beck is big and perceived as unattractive. She is not so much of a womanly figure in the movie. Even the other African American servant Walker makes a joke about her appearance when little Lloyd asks if Mom Beck was ever been baptized. Walker says ‘a little river like that wouldn’t do her no good. Child, she needs the Mississippi’(Little Colonel). Mom Beck’s immediate reaction is being furious about his joke, also reflecting ‘angry black woman’ stereotype. The movie also exaggerates her strength when she is trying to break open the door with her bottom to save Jack Sherman. She hits the door with her butt and even breaks it only with her body. Contrast to Mom Beck, little girl’s mother Elizabeth is graceful. She plays harp and her love of her husband is emphasized, which was the ideal image of female at that time period. All of the images portrayed in the movie secretly indicates that a woman like Mom Beck can not fit into the society where woman should be fragile, beautiful and subordinate.
Hattie McDaniel, who played Mom Beck, is the actress who debuted in 1932. Throughout her career, she played supporting roles in many movies. Mom Beck is not her only Mammy character she played. She was Mammy in the movie Gone with the Wind, which made her to become the first African American with Oscar award in 1940. Despite her success, she was often criticized because of the roles that she played in many movies. She was ‘criticized for playing servants and slaves who were seemingly content to retain their role as such’(Biography.com). The most famous quote of her comes out as the response to the critics. She said ‘I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7’(Turner Classic Movies). It is clear that she was aware that her role was promoting negative stereotypes, but she chose money and fame over her community’s well being. However, we also need to understand what kind of job choices there were for African American female that forced McDaniel to accept the stereotypical roles in the movie.
The movie Little Colonel was released in 1935. This is the time of the Great Migration of African Americans. In the class, we learned that there were employment challenges for African Americans during the Great Migration. African American females often got a job as a domestic worker in White household. The domestic workers were paid less, but it was almost always the only open job for African American females. Instead of getting paid enough, they had a possibility to have an access to service pan, which is getting leftover food or clothings that they could bring home (Professor Pittman, LaShawnDa, personal communication, Nov. 19th, 2015). The work for African American men was no better than that of women. The job was scarce and unstable. Even the jobs they could find did not pay them enough. Non-agricultural jobs such as railroad construction work often caused health problem and “employers deducted housing, food, …, and broken tools from wages”(Dunaway 241) The workers were not allowed to leave the work until they repay all the costs demanded by the employers (241).
During this time in urban area, a lot of African Americans were tied to systems such as sharecropping and cottage tenancy which bound them to another form of slavery. Sharecropping enslaved the free Blacks. Often times, they “received no regular wages. They were paid nothing until the crop had been harvested and sold”(Kelley & Lewis 349). “Cottage tenancy, a labor arrangement in which the household worked in exchange for housing and rations, was also common” (Dunaway 234). Systems like these supported the slavery in a different name to be continued, and it challenged African American’s economic well being.
It was also the time of Jim Crow segregation. Jim Crow created an enormously large gap between White and Black. It was extremely challenging for African Americans to become successful because of lack of resources for housing and education. The racial segregation with the foundation of the Federal Housing Administration created redlining. The value of the land was determined by the residents in the area. The rich, White neighborhood was colored green while the poor, people of color neighborhood were painted red, which drew a red line between the neighborhoods. Not only the neighborhoods were racially segregated, the new housing fund was disproportionately distributed. The lecture from Dr. Pittman tells us that, ‘between 1934 and 1962, the federal government underwrote 120 billion dollars in new housing. Less than 2% went to non-whites’(Lipsitz- Housing & Education). The education gap between White and Black was also another barrier for African Americans’ upward mobility. Residential segregation naturally led to school segregation which promoted unfair quality of education. It was not until Brown v. Board in 1954 when the issue of educational segregation was addressed. There were uncountable numbers of limitations for African Americans to hold equal rights as White. This environment influenced some African Americans to pursue a successful life that might have negative impact on their own community.
The character Mammy and the choice McDaniel made are significant because the character clearly perpetuates negative stereotypes of African American. McDaniel’s statement ‘I’d rather be a maid than to be one’(Turner Classic Movies) evidently reflects the time period of 1930s and 1940s; the time of obvious racial segregation, overt discrimination, and institutional racism in occupation, housing and education. Maybe McDaniel deserves to be criticized for being a supporter of promoting Black stereotype, but we first should acknowledge the social situation at that time. Maybe she was, too, a victim of the racism.
I believe the role that African Americans are playing in media, especially movies and TV reflects the contemporary situation. It tells us what is accepted and what is ignored in our society. Sadly, it still is hard to find an African American female actress in the movie industry. The beauty standard and model masculinity are still overly weighted toward Whiteness. It is not uncommon that African American child to stop dreaming about being an actress because she hardly ever sees Black heroine in the media. There is definitely an institutional racism that promotes Whiteness that blocks opportunities for people of color to perform in mainstream. To be recognized, Black actors and actresses still take roles that reinforce stereotypes of African Americans. It is slowly changing as talented African Americans are playing important characters in many movies, but how much has changed? It’s been 90 years after Little Colonel was released, but I only notice a slight change in the film industry. How many more years do we need to wait to see the big change? How much longer?
Biography.com Editors. “Hattie McDaniel Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d.Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon Riggs. Perf. Esther Rolle. California Newsreel, 1987. Online.
Dunaway, Wilma A. The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. New York: Maison Des Sciences De L’homme/Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis. To Make Our World Anew. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.Print.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. (Nov. 23rd, 2015). Lipsitz- Housing & Education [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/986700/files/folder/Course%2520Lectures?preview=33742531
Shirley Temple Archive. “Miss-shirley-temple.” Shirley Temple Archive, Shirley Temple and Hattie McDaniel in The Little… Shirley Temple Archive, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
The Little Colonel. Dir. David Butler. By William Conselman. Perf. Shirley Temple, Lionel Barrymore, Evelyn Venable, Bill Robinson, and Hattie McDaniel. Fox Film Corp., 1935.
Turner Classic Movies. “Hattie McDaniel.” http://www.tcm.com/. Turner Classic Movies, 8 Dec. Web.