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The mammy archetype is a racial stereotype which originated in the United States. Many people find the mammy archetype racist and offensive, but it still crops up in American entertainment, advertising, and culture, and a few examples can even be found on the shelves of most American grocery stores. Because of the negative associations with the negative archetype, the slang term “mammy” for “mother” is viewed as offensive in some regions of the United States, especially in reference to a black woman.
This racial stereotype has its origins in slavery. The classic mammy archetype depicts an large black woman, dressed in bright, bold colors, usually with a rag over her head. She is typically good-natured, and often motherly, with a broad smile on her face. She is also loud, and sometimes blunt in addition to motherly, occasionally sassing back to people as a way of getting them to behave. In visual depictions, the mammy's lips are often grossly exaggerated and cartoonish, and she may have extremely large hips and heavily kinky hair under her head covering.
Black female slaves were often used as nurses for white children in the days of slavery. The stereotype of an overweight, kindly nurse was widely duplicated in the American South in the 1700s and 1800s. Somewhat uniquely in a slave-owning society, the “mammy” had authority over white children, but this authority was usually tempered with fear, and the relationship between the slave and her charges was inherently unequal, not least because many black nursemaids had their own children taken away and sold or raised by other women.
The mammy archetype appears frequently in books and artwork produced during the slave era in the United States, and she was commonly included in blackface minstrel shows and other entertainments meant to appeal to a white audience. After slavery was abolished, the mammy archetype lived on, appearing in advertisements which were meant to evoke the “Old South,” and in novels, films, and other forms of entertainment. She has become very familiar to many Americans, including those who are not familiar with the racially charged history of the mammy archetype.
One of the classic examples of the mammy stereotype is Aunt Jemima, the fictional character behind a line of breakfast foods. While the face which appears on the packaging today is simply that of a relatively benign black woman, some of the historical packaging showed the mammy archetype in full flower, complete with huge lips and hips and a motherly appearance. The black community has periodically expressed discontent about particularly blatant examples of the mammy archetype, but the continued use of this racial stereotype suggests that defeating it may be an uphill battle.