A first step for black women: reclaiming the Aunt(y) Jemima, Mammy stereotypes

The pages of one particular chapter in my copy of the book my class just finished look abused. There are underlines, highlights, comments, exclamation points, asterisks and even a few smiley faces everywhere. In some places, my pen's blue ink is so ubiquitous, it competes with the black type, making both the text and the notes I took on it difficult to read.

My enthusiastic response was to the chapter "Aunt(y) Jemima in Toronto Spiritual Baptist Experiences: Spiritual Mother or Servile Woman?" in This Spot of Ground: Spiritual Baptists in Toronto by Carol B. Duncan. Developed by Africans and their descendants during slavery in the Caribbean -- where the religions of European planters, enslaved Africans, and Chinese and South Asian indentured servants competed, mixed and sometimes fused -- the Spiritual Baptist faith is Protestant Christianity with elements of Roman Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Kabbalah evident in ritual and belief. As the title suggests, the book is Duncan's ethnographic account of Spiritual Baptist worshippers living in Toronto. Most of her interview subjects are women who migrated to Toronto from the Caribbean in the 1970s as domestic workers and still hold the same occupation.

Their vocation is important because the chapter I'm so excited about demonstrates ways the Spiritual Baptist Church has reclaimed and transformed the "Aunt Jemima" ("Aunty Jemima" in the Caribbean) or "Mammy" stereotype. In their worship service, she goes from being a black woman who is "all-nurturing, servile, caring" and some combination of happy, silent or invisible as she works tirelessly for others who devalue her and her service, to a mother of the church who, as a servant of Jesus and mentor to younger women, is held in high esteem. With scarves around their heads and long skirts hitting the ground, these church mothers' attire even resembles the Mammy character -- and they don't feel ashamed of this. Duncan recounts a Mammy figurine in the church placed on an altar during service. A symbol of the domestic work women do outside the church, she becomes an important and affirming part of worship inside the church walls.

While I find it empowering that women in the Spiritual Baptist faith have reinvented Aunt(y) Jemima, I wonder how gender roles prescribed in the Bible inform their reclamation of the stereotype. Some of the most referenced women in the Bible, like Ruth or sisters Mary and Martha, serve in their home or make a tremendous sacrifice for their family. Mary, the mother of Jesus, turns her body over to the Lord and calls herself his "handmaid" or servant. Even the Proverbs 31 woman who works outside the home and owns real estate doesn't put anything away for herself; her earnings are for her family and female servants. These are the women that Christian women are told to emulate.

As a feminist and a Christian, I have mixed feelings about this. I think Christianity is especially suited for reclaiming the Aunt(y) Jemima stereotype because being a servant elevates every Christian in God's eyes, regardless of gender. Invisibility of the work you do on Earth has a heavenly reward. Doing your work without grumbling or complaining makes you blameless. Endurance builds character. To be a Mammy for Christ is to do God's work in the best way.

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But Christianity also works well for reclaiming Aunt(y) Jemima because of the servile position of most biblical women who are also considered moral and who we think of as role models, and servile is not what I want to teach any woman or girl to be. I want women and girls to know their worth, to not care for others to the point of self-detriment and to be outspoken when they are undervalued or mistreated. They also should be honored and paid well for domestic work.

For black women, I find this stereotype transformation incomplete. Mammy isn't the only stereotype that black women feel projected upon them. What about Sapphire (the angry black woman) and Jezebel (the licentious one)? I try to picture a scantily clad figurine or a battery-operated statuette with a rolling neck and nasty attitude being placed on the altar in the church, and I don't see that happening. Women's sexuality is still taboo in Christian settings, and angry or mean doesn't exactly serve as a good example of Jesus.

Nevertheless, elevating Mammy from invisibility to the altar is a radical first step I embrace.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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This story appeared in the Nov 21-Dec 4, 2014 print issue under the headline: A first step for black women: reclaiming the Aunt(y) Jemima stereotype .

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