by Lauren V. Williams
Despite the progression of Hollywood, the 20th century portrayals of Black women have permeated the American psyche from the silver screen to the political sphere. One of the most pervasive of these tropes is the Mammy, a subservient Black woman who is dedicated to protecting the white status quo without expecting any support herself. This stereotype influenced how Black women were treated by policy makers and institutions. Despite being one of the most politically active groups, Black women weren’t given assistance, donations or legislation that would prop up their communities. It wasn’t until Georgia, the bastion of the Old South, went blue that old-style politicos started to appreciate the depths of Black women’s political talents. Black women have spent decades turning out the masses, investing in the marginalized and protecting the unprotected. Although Black women have historically been sidelined in American politics despite their devoted participation, a new era of organizing may elevate Black women and the advantages they bring to the table.
Mammies were Black women defined by selflessness, strength and dedication to an inequitable status quo. Hattie McDaniel, the Black housemaid in Gone with the Wind, was otherwise nameless outside of the nickname given to her by Scarlet O’Hara: “Mammy”. Mammy was one of the Southern belle’s biggest defenders. She cleaned her sheets. She nursed her heartbreaks. She shielded Scarlet from the approaching Union Army, more desperate to protect the woman who enslaved her than the army fighting for her liberty. Mammy was a fabrication, created and perpetuated by white authors and filmmakers to argue that Black women liked being enslaved. No one needed to fight for their advancement or equality because they happily accepted the little support they received. Various iterations of the trope have popped up through film history: Birth of a Nation (the cinematic love letter to the KKK), Imitation of Life (an Aunt Jemima story), and The Help (the 2012 Oscar favorite). The fiction of the Mammy infiltrated the reality of how Black women were perceived in American politics.
Although Black women strengthened the foundation of American democracy, they weren’t acknowledged by the political elites. They themselves surpassed all other race and gender subgroups in voter turnout in 2008 and 2012. Then they turned around and created multiple grassroots organizations that mobilize the marginalized. Groups like The New Georgia Project, Philly Youth VOTE! and Black Voters Matter specifically target those who are disproportionately impacted by pernicious policies like communities of color, the young and the impoverished. Many people within these groups have been shackled by voter suppression and general disillusionment with politics. Instead of appealing to these voters by ads or stump speeches, these groups operate within the community to advocate for policies that address the everyday issues that these people have. They register voters at protests, promote issues while hosting cookouts and discuss democracy while going door to door. These groups strive to make passive participants of politics into active ones. Black women created the most famous movements of our time, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, by following in the footsteps of Sojourner Truth and Diane Nash, influential leaders of abolition and the Civil Rights Movement. Their protests have inspired people Black and white, young and old to march for a better future.
However, most of these organizations have been neglected by large donors or sustained support systems. Black women are the most loyal base for Democrats and their activism to protect the working class helps the purported constituents of Republicans. However, Democrats generally take these groups for granted. Republicans ignore them completely. Most money, time and resources go towards persuading coal miners in Pennsylvania, laid off factory workers in Ohio and Cubans in Florida. Like the Mammy, Black women have been expected to do the work and, in the words of Symone Sanders, “have yet to get a thank you card.”
These indifferent attitudes oftentimes become antagonistic when Black women try to grow from organizers into policy makers. The perception is that black women don’t need help because they essentially are the help. Mammies are meant to protect Scarlet O’Hara but they must remember that they are not the main character in the story. Therefore, although their activism boosts democracy at its foundation, Black women are not welcomed in spaces above that station. Many ambitious Black women still face the struggles of Shirley Chisholm, the first woman and African American to run for president in 1972. Black women are more likely to be discouraged by political insiders from running. They’re less likely to be a part of wealthy fundraising networks. They’re more likely to be subject to negative racial and gender stereotypes on the campaign trail. The sole support systems that most Black women have in the political system are from the activism that they exhibited across their communities. Therefore, they’re greatly underrepresented in political offices. Black women are about 6.5% of the voting age population. In 2019, there was one biracial Black woman in the Senate (1%), 22 Black women in Congress (5%), 6 in statewide elective executive offices (1.9%) and 307 in state legislatures (4.2%).
It only takes a scratch of the surface to see how the Mammy stereotype manifests in political perspectives. After the 2020 election, many segments were devoted to thanking Black women for “saving democracy”. It was a presumption that Black women were lying down on the line to save the whole of the country – that they were devoted to the greater good. Many white liberals or even moderate conservatives hoped that defeating Trump would bring back “normalcy”. However, their discomfort in the Trump years was the agony that Black women have felt all along. Black women are the most likely to be imprisoned for drug charges, despite all races of women selling and using drugs at the same rate. Black women are three times more likely than white women to die in childbirth due to restrictions in affordable healthcare. Black women are one of the groups most likely to be affected by economic policy as the group most likely to have low-wage jobs. The Mammy stereotype perpetuates the idea that Black women give their all to protect the most powerful members of society. In reality, Black women use activism, legislation and votes to protect the most powerless members of society – which are oftentimes themselves. Once they’re in office, Black women propose more policies that combat criminal injustice, healthcare inadequacies and economic inequality. Their multifaceted legislation aims to address the needs of multiple marginalized groups at once, such as low-income communities of color. The only aspect of the Mammy trope that holds true in real life is that black women made these gains with little support from the rulers of the status quo. They were oftentimes alone in their activism and ignored in their ambitions. Therefore, the problem with lauding Black women for saving democracy is that it fundamentally says “they are saving us” instead of “they are saving them”.
2020 may finally change the perception of Black women in politics. Post-election consensus seems to be that money is overrated, ads are over-saturated and sometimes good candidates are useless if the infrastructure to bring out their voters isn’t there. The work of Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown and Nse Ufot in Georgia showed that the path to electoral victory is investing in the long-term power of marginalized voters. As the political landscape changes and voter suppression increases, Black women have the experience in the same community activism that can strengthen our democracy at its core. Despite the criticism of the news coverage of Black women in this article, the fact that Black women are now being credited in their advocacy work does make a difference. Donors are finally supporting their organizations. Versions of The New Georgia Project have appeared in Virginia, Texas and North Carolina. Black women have even developed their voice to the point of securing a biracial Black woman to be the vice president. Felicia Davis, a Black organizer in Georgia, sums up this progress in a few words:
“We are the home of Scarlett O’Hara and ‘Gone with the Wind’. […] What we’re doing here is putting to rest some of the worst aspects of Southern culture. And that’s a powerful thing.”