The best books that are antidotes to the unrelenting poison of “Aunt Jemima”

Micki McElya Author Of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America
By Micki McElya

Who am I?

Stories of the past are always about making claims to the present and future. These claims include which stories—whose stories—are persistently silenced, ignored, or made very hard to hear, see, and know in the dominant culture. I am a cultural historian of U.S. political history, broadly imagined. My work is almost always driven by the same question: Why didn’t I already know this? Quickly followed by: What has it meant that I didn’t know this? Invariably, the answers are found in the histories of women, gender, race, sexuality, class, and immigration.

I wrote...

Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America

By Micki McElya,

Book cover of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America

What is my book about?

When Aunt Jemima beamed from a box of pancake mix, many felt reassured. She was everyone's “Mammy,” the faithful slave who was content to cook and care for whites, no matter how grueling the labor or blatant the exploitation, because she loved them. This image of a nurturing black mother-figure ensconced—or trapped—within idealized white domesticity exercises a tenacious hold on the American imagination. 

The myth of “Mammy” warps popular understandings of slavery and its legacies while sustaining violent white supremacy, all through claims of affection. In 2021, the Aunt Jemima trademark was finally retired, but the myth holds on because so many refuse to let go of it and the cultural, political, and emotional work “Mammy” performs.

The books I picked & why

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Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household

By Thavolia Glymph,

Book cover of Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household

Why this book?

This outstanding book speaks truth to the historical lies animated in the mammy caricature. This includes challenging then-prevailing scholarship that placed the plantation house at a remove from the hard labor, day-to-day brutalities, and systemic violence of American slavery at large, and as a potential site for proto-feminist alliances and mutual support between white and Black women grounded in shared disempowerment under patriarchy.

Through meticulous research and deft argument, Glymph shows the plantation household to be like the field—a place of coerced production and violence—but largely managed and perpetrated by white women. Black women endured and resisted these conditions, transforming those houses of suffering and bondage in slavery and in freedom.

Like One of the Family

By Alice Childress,

Book cover of Like One of the Family

Why this book?

Childress’s novel is a compilation of short pieces originally published serially in two different Black-owned newspapers. In each story, Mildred, a Black domestic worker in New York City, recounts to her friend, Marge, the humorous, infuriating, and all too familiar experiences of working for various white families across the city. She also describes her refusal to remain silent in the face of white employers’ micro-aggressions, outright venom, and fantasies that she’s their loving mammy. Childress’s stories were a powerful salve to the Black household workers and others who first read them in a newspaper. Most of them daily confronted similar situations and worse, but lacked the safety or resources to resist in the same direct ways. 

Blanche on the Lam: A Blanche White Mystery

By Barbara Neely,

Book cover of Blanche on the Lam: A Blanche White Mystery

Why this book?

This is the first in a series of mystery novels featuring the character of Blanche White, a Black domestic worker approaching middle age who is required by circumstance to investigate and solve crimes, usually murders. Blanche is a natural successor to Childress’s Mildred, making clear from the outset that she is nobody’s mammy. “Blanche was unimpressed by the tears, and [her employer] Grace’s Mammy-save-me eyes. … She never ceased to be amazed at how many white people longed for Aunt Jemima.”

Three books follow: Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, Blanche Cleans Up, and Blanche Passes Go. More than just well-crafted, entertaining who-done-its, Neeley’s books examine the fullness and diversity of Black women’s lives and labors hidden by the mythic “mammy,” including explorations of class, desire, respectability politics, colorism, mothering, generational trauma, and sexual assault.

Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

By Premilla Nadasen,

Book cover of Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

Why this book?

Domestic and agricultural laborers were expressly excluded from the job protections and workplace regulations of the New Deal, including unemployment insurance, disability benefits, and Social Security. This had disproportionate effects on Black people who predominated in those sectors, compounded effects that continue to shape the exploitative and precarious conditions of domestic work today. Nadasen traces the history of Black women’s organizing for higher wages, better conditions, and recognition of the necessity and dignity of domestic workers from the 1950s to the current organizing of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

While centering the stories of Black women, Nadasen is attentive to the racially and nationally diverse historical and contemporary landscapes of household laborers in the United States, including cleaners, nannies, elder care providers, and home health care workers.

Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women's Digital Resistance

By Moya Bailey,

Book cover of Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women's Digital Resistance

Why this book?

Bailey originated the term “misogynoir” in 2008 to describe, she writes, “the anti-Black racist misogyny that Black women experience, particularly in US visual and digital culture.” The controlling image of the “Mammy” has long been a hyper-visible, toxic presence in this milieu. In this book, Bailey examines the digital resistance and social media-based activisms of Black women—particularly queer and trans women—who seize representational power to dismantle the distorting stereotypes, expose their systemic impacts, and make spaces for telling their own diverse, gendered Black stories and enable others to do so as well. Throughout, Bailey makes clear that cultural representations have material, life-and-death effects, but also the capacity to create new and better worlds.

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