Mammy Jezebel and Sistahs

 Marilyn Yarbrough with Crystal Bennett

 

Excerpted from Marilyn Yarbrough with Crystal Bennett, Cassandra and the "Sistahs": the Peculiar Treatment of African American Women in the Myth of Women as Liars Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 626-657, 634-655 (Spring 2000)(254 footnotes omitted)

 

MarilynVYarbroughIn addition to the negative stereotypes scholars associate with all women who complain about sexual harassment and other types of sexual abuse, there are three common stereotypes ascribed particularly to African American women. First, Mammy, everyone's favorite aunt or grandmother, sometimes referred to as "Aunt Jemima," is ready to soothe everyone's hurt, envelop them in her always ample bosom, and wipe away their tears. She is often even more nurturing to her white charges than to her own children. Next, there is Jezebel, the bad-black-girl, who is depicted as alluring and seductive as she either indiscriminately mesmerizes men and lures them into her bed, or very deliberately lures into her snares those who have something of value to offer her. Finally, Sapphire, the wise-cracking, balls-crushing, emasculating woman, is usually shown with her hands on her hips and her head thrown back as she lets everyone know she is in charge. Besides the three common stereotypes listed above, there are other, more contemporary ones. According to Professor Ammons, the "matriarch"

 

symbolizes the black mother in her home. The matriarch is the mammy gone bad, a failed mammy, because she has spent too much time away from home, has not properly supervised her children, is overly aggressive, and emasculates the men in her life. The matriarch was the centerpiece of the Moynihan Report of the mid-1960's. Professor Ammons goes on to describe the "welfare queen":

 

[w]hile the problem with the matriarch is that she is too aggressive, the welfare mother is not aggressive enough. She shuns work and passes bad values onto her children. Unlike the breeder slave woman who was most valuable when she bore children, the welfare mother must be discouraged from producing because her offspring are a threat to economic stability. Another, mostly abandoned stereotype, once common in motion pictures that predated the appearance even of Mammy, was that of the "tragic mulatta," depicted as alluring, sexually arousing, seductive, and tainted (by one drop of African blood).

 

The image of Mammy as a symbol of African American womanhood is inextricably integrated into the folklore of American culture. The evolution of the Mammy image can be attributed to female slaves performing domestic duties for the family of the slave owner. Historically, the media has portrayed her as having characteristics that suggest submissiveness towards her owner (during slavery) or employer (following Emancipation). Moreover, her behavior connotes satisfaction and comfort with her station in life, wherein she is consigned to performing domestic duties.

 

Mammy is first and foremost asexual, and accordingly, in this society she had to be fat. Most portrayals of Mammy depict her as an "obese African American woman, of dark complexion, with extremely large breasts and buttocks . . . ." By doing this, male slave-owners could disavow their sexual interests in African American women. By characterizing Mammy as an asexual, maternal and deeply religious woman whose main task was caring for the master's children and running his household, the slave-owner found in her the perfect slave. She was a loyal, faithful, but still untrustworthy member of the family who always knew her place.

 

The second stereotype of African American women is that of Jezebel. Jezebel "is the promiscuous female with an insatiable sexual appetite." In Biblical history, Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab of Israel. Jezebel's actions came to exemplify lust. Subsequently, the name Jezebel has become synonymous with women who engage in lewd sexual acts and who take advantage of men through sex. Jezebel is depicted as erotically appealing and openly seductive. Her easy ways excused slave owners' abuse of their slaves and gave an explanation for Jezebel's mulatto offspring. This inability to be perceived as chaste brought about the stereotype of dishonesty. In other words, African American women were not, and often are not, portrayed as being truthful and, therefore, they could not be trusted. Throughout history, our court system has also exploited the myth of Jezebel. The courts have used this image to make racism and sexism appear natural. The sexual myth of Jezebel functions as a tool for controlling African American women. Consequently, sexual promiscuity is imputed to them even absent specific evidence of their individual sexual histories. This imputation ensures that their credibility is doubted when any issue of sexual exploitation is involved.

 

Finally, in the stereotype of Sapphire, African American women are portrayed as evil, bitchy, stubborn and hateful. In other words, Sapphire is everything that Mammy is not. "The Sapphire image has no specific physical features other than the fact that her complexion is usually brown or dark brown." Unlike other images that symbolize African American women, Sapphire necessitates the presence of an African American male. The African American male and female are engaged in an ongoing verbal duel. Sapphire was created to battle the corrupt African American male whose "lack of integrity, and use of cunning and trickery provides her with an opportunity to emasculate him through her use of verbal put-downs."

 

Ernestine Ward popularized the Sapphire image in the Amos and Andy television series. Ward played a character known as Sapphire, and her husband, Kingfish, was played by Tim Moore. Sapphire's spiteful personality was primarily used to create sympathy in viewers for Kingfish specifically and African American males in general. As a result, many African American women suppress these feelings of bitterness and rage for fear of being regarded as a Sapphire.

 

The myths of Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire "have their roots in negative anti- woman mythology." Moreover, at any time, each of these images is used to characterize African American women in a monolithic image. Consequently, many people find it difficult to appreciate the diversity of African American women and instead impose identities based on negative stereotypes.

 

While the Jezebel stereotype most clearly supports the sexual exploitation of African American women, the other two stereotypes also promote this subjugation. Mammy's harassment claims would go unheard because no one would believe that a man would desire an asexual woman. Similarly, Sapphire's claims of sexual abuse would be overshadowed by her "reputation for deception, lying and lack of loyalty."

 

The characterizations of African American women as asexual Mammys, promiscuous Jezebels, and antagonistic Sapphires reaffirm society's belief that African American women are less individualistic than white women. These stereotypes, which evolved during slavery, continued to exist after the end of slavery and still contribute to the unique harassment experiences of African American women today.

 

 

 

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Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton
School of Law
Dayton, OH 45469-2772
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