Mammy, How We Love You

There I was one

morning, in between freelance copywriting assignments. The Today show had just gone off and it was time for Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, a

talk show that deals with the complexity of relationships-basically, who’s

getting some and who’s not. Until recently, Cybill Shepherd was the host, along

with a panel of experts: a comedian, a doctor and assorted actors who, like me,

were in between nothing. I knew Ms. Shepherd’s days were numbered; she never

did look comfortable. I always got the feeling she was chanting to herself,

“It’s a paycheck, it’s a paycheck.”

Ms. Shepherd has been replaced by Cristina Ferrare, the

former model and ex-wife of John DeLorean. Her fellow panelists include a

comedian (relationships must be a big joke after all), a doctor, a wiry blonde

and a pretty black woman with flowing hair.

The black woman looked familiar. So much so that I initially

thought to myself, “Is that …? No. Can’t Be. Well, I’ll be damned! NBC has run

out and found its own Star Jones.” Her name is Bo Griffin, a radio talk-show

host, and like Ms. Jones, she’s a knockout. A big knockout.

I can imagine the meeting where it all happened ….

First Exec: “This is a

good lineup. We have the comedian, the doctor-”

Second Exec: “Yes, that’s great for credibility. And women

love Cristina ever since she came out about her loss of libido.”

Third Exec: “Yeah, that was so powerful I think it came

back. But we’re missing something. What about an African-American woman? Who’s

that gal on ABC?”

First Exec: “Oprah?”

Second Exec: ” No-oo ,

the heavyset, pretty one with all the hair.”

First Exec: “Oh, you mean Star Jones.”

Third Exec: “She’s great-sassy, smart and big. But Star’s

busy. Hey, maybe we can find our own.”

Meeting fades, music swells, Al Jolson is shown on one knee,

arms outstretched, mouthing “Mammy.”

I wonder about the focus groups. Were the interviewees

wired? If so, did the monitoring machine they were hooked up to go haywire and

display sharp downturns when the image of a slender black woman came up? Then

did it rise at the sight of a heavyset black woman? Did she conjure up warm and

loving nanny memories in the interviewees, like the time they rode the bus

together and she stood so that her young charge could have the whole seat to

herself?

America likes its black women big; it’s the mammy thing.

Mammy’s skirts are a part of the fabric of our history to this day. We see it

in commercials. The star of a campaign for a pine-scented cleanser is a pretty

woman, black with cornrows. She’s large, too. And for 30 seconds, she sasses

America into keeping their homes germ-free. The Pine-Sol Lady is definitely the

work of some poor numbers cruncher who proved to his colleagues that to reach

their target audience, they need a portly black woman. She’ll get the folks

disinfecting in no time. Mammy knows best!

Because I’m an advertising copywriter, I’ve sat in on many

casting sessions. I remember one for a skin moisturizer; a couple of full-sized

white women showed up. It was like, “Is she kidding?” But when a full-sized

black woman showed up, there were grins. Acceptance. She didn’t get the part,

but it clearly had nothing to do with her weight. No one has a bad thing to say

about Mammy.

Black women especially embrace the mammy thing. Black women

have a far more positive self-image of their bodies than white women. When I’m

with black girlfriends, we don’t talk about our thighs, we like our butts. When

you give us a compliment, we take it. We don’t say things like, “You’re

kidding, I’m so fat!”

Misses Griffin and Jones probably feel very good about

themselves. Unlike their co-hosts, they can enjoy their jobs and not have to

worry about gaining weight. No bags of celery and carrot sticks in these girls’

dressing rooms. Star will tell you in a minute that she loves her bacon.

However, the mammy thing bites us on our nice, round butts

all the time. A heavy black woman conjures up warmth, safety; she won’t take

your man away from you while she’s holding your baby. Star Jones gets to drool

over Michael Douglas; Vanessa Williams and Halle Berry get Michael Douglas’

drool all over them. Rhett Butler could tease Mammy about her red slip, but it

wouldn’t have been the same if it were Prissy. 

I did my own research on mammy worship. I asked one white

girlfriend of mine-I thought one white was a fair sampling; 40 million blacks

get judged on the behavior of one every day-what she thought about the use of

big black women in the media.

“I have to tell you, if I were in the mall and had to leave

my children with someone and there were two women nearby, one thin and white,

the other heavy and black, I’d leave my kids with the black woman. What’s wrong

with that? I’d leave them with a fat white woman, too. I’d choose her over a

thin black woman.”

I pointed out to her

that she’s thin. Does that make her less of a good mother? After a long moment

of silence, she answered, “No, it means I wouldn’t want other people leaving

their children with me.” She giggled and signed off, something about picking

the kids up. I should add, my dear friend’s home is mammy-free; she actually goes

near her children. 

She won’t be leaving her kids with me. I’m a small black

woman, 107 pounds, certainly not mammy material.

Personally, I have nothing against heavyset black women

getting plum jobs on television, and I’m not calling for an end to hiring women

built like them. It’s the stereotype that bothers me. Can’t a black woman my

size be seen as wise? Can she not impart wisdom, give America a good talking

to? Or am I not mammy enough?

Or maybe, in the eyes of whites, I’m not unattractive enough

for their comfort. I remember casting little girls for a commercial I’d

written. We picked four-three pretty white girls and one pretty black girl.

Then the door flung open and a girl bounded into the room. She was black, her

hair was a mess and she was righteously funny-looking. Frankly, she looked like

a pickaninny. The art director said, “She’s terrific-let’s use her instead of

the other one.” The producer looked at me; he knew what I was thinking. Calmly

I asked, “Why is it that the white girls get to be pretty, and the one black

girl has to be the odd-looking one? Either we go pretty for all or

funny-looking for all.” We went for pretty, but not without discussion. If I

were not in the room, the funny-looking little one would’ve gotten the gig

based on a white person’s point of view of what a little black girl should look

like in a mix of white girls.

I’m not in any of those rooms anymore. And I’m certainly not

sitting at the table with the big shots at the networks. No, I’m just a writer

trying to make a living. And I’m tired. Aren’t you too, Mammy?