Making Mammy: A Caricature of Black Womanhood, 1840–1940 installation view at CAAM (photo by Elon Shoenholz)

The stereotype of the “mammy” — a kindly, overweight, African American servant woman — has been an archetype of institutional racism and misogyny in the US, giving a soft, revisionist veneer to the atrocities of antebellum slavery. Examples range from Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of a plantation maid in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind to Aunt Jemima, whose grinning countenance still graces the boxes of pancake mix that bear her name. Contemporary artist Betye Saar sought to reclaim the image with her seminal 1972 assemblage work “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” in which she altered a figurine of the character with a rifle.

The exhibition Making Mammy: A Caricature of Black Womanhood, 1840–1940 at the California African American Museum (CAAM) looks at this phenomenon through films, photographs, and articles of material culture, showing just how widespread and insidious this manufactured caricature became. In conjunction with the exhibition, assistant curator Taylor Bythewood-Porter and African-American memorabilia collector Gail Deculus-Johnson will host a discussion on collecting Black Americana. The pair will talk about the value of these important, but difficult pieces of American history, as well as address the ethical questions that accompany collecting them.

“Gail said to me, ‘Everyone’s collecting for various reasons, for investment, some to get these images out of circulation,’” Bythewood-Porter told Hyperallergic. “She’s collecting because it proves that there’s an evolution of this image, and it shows how African Americans were seen by the outside world. To see these stereotypical images, in cookie jars, or in books, it’s this undeniable proof that it was very much a part of contemporary culture. I’m interested in having an understanding of what they mean and how can we change the narrative. Instead of shying away from these difficult conversations, trying to figure these things out together.”

When: Friday, January 17, 1–2pm
Where: California African American Museum (600 State Drive, Exhibition Park, Los Angeles)

More info at California African American Museum

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Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.

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