After slavery ended, the myth of lascivious, wanton, and sexually available black women could not alone support a system of domestic labor that required proximity between black women and the white families that employed them. An insatiable breeder was profitable in agricultural slavery because children born to bondswomen became the property of the enslavers regardless of their racial composition. But after slavery’s demise, the specter of racial intermixing in a context of (nominal) legal equality became a national anxiety. Black women who labored in white homes had to be reimagined. A seductive, exotic wench would threaten the stability of white families, but an asexual, omnicompetent, devoted servant was ideal.
With the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction and withdrew federal troops from the South, white secessionists were given the power to craft segregation codes, disfranchise black voters, and revise the Confederate narrative as triumphant rather than traitorous. America’s newest citizens, meanwhile, were relegated to forced agricultural peonage through rural sharecropping, grinding urban poverty in the South’s new cities, new forms of segregation
through the imposition of Jim Crow, and racial terror meted out by the Ku Klux Klan. The white Southern imagination generated myths of black manhood and womanhood that supported these segregationist policies. Mammy was a central figure in this mythmaking. ‘‘African American women as mammies served to challenge critics who argued that slavery was harsh and demeaning. After all, [mammies] were depicted as being happy and content with their duties as servants.’’
Enslaved women working as domestic servants in Southern plantations were taken from their families and forced to nurse white babies while their own infants subsisted on sugar water. They were not voluntary members of the enslaver’s family; they were women laboring under coercion and the constant threat of physical and sexual violence. They had no enforceable authority over their white charges and could not even resist the sale and exploitation of their own children. Domestic servants often were not grandmotherly types but teenagers or very young women. It was white supremacist imaginations that remembered these powerless, coerced slave girls as
soothing, comfortable, consenting women.
Unlike the bad black woman who was aggressively sexual, Mammy had no personal needs or desires. She was a trusted adviser and confidante whose skills were used exclusively in service of the white families to which she was attached. Mammy was not a protector or defender of black children or communities. She represented a maternal ideal, but not in caring for her own children. Her love, doting, advice, correction, and supervision were reserved exclusively for white women and children. Her loyal affection to white men, women, and children was entirely devoid of sexual desire.