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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Thavolia Glymph,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Out of the House of Bondage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The plantation household was, first and foremost, a site of production. This fundamental fact has generally been overshadowed by popular and scholarly images of the plantation household as the source of slavery's redeeming qualities, where 'gentle' mistresses ministered to 'loyal' slaves. This book recounts a very different story. The very notion of a private sphere, as divorced from the immoral excesses of chattel slavery as from the amoral logic of market laws, functioned to conceal from public scrutiny the day-to-day struggles between enslaved women and their mistresses, subsumed within a logic of patriarchy. One of emancipation's unsung consequences was precisely…

Like One of the Family

By Alice Childress,

Book cover of Like One of the Family

Why did I love 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. 

By Alice Childress,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Like One of the Family as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Recommended by Entertainment Weekly

The hilarious, uncompromising novel about African American domestic workers—from a trailblazer in Black women’s literature and now featuring a foreword by Roxane Gay

First published in Paul Robeson’s newspaper, Freedom, and composed of a series of conversations between Mildred, a black domestic, and her friend Marge, Like One of the Family is a wry, incisive portrait of working women in Harlem in the 1950s. Rippling with satire and humor, Mildred’s outspoken accounts vividly capture her white employers’ complacency and condescension—and their startled reactions to a maid who speaks her mind and refuses to exchange dignity for…

Blanche on the Lam

By Barbara Neely,

Book cover of Blanche on the Lam

Why did I love 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.

By Barbara Neely,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Blanche on the Lam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning author Barbara Neely presents the first in a series of novels featuring Blanche White, bla ck domestic worker extraordinaire and accidental sleuth. '

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

Why did I love 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.

By Premilla Nadasen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Household Workers Unite as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Telling the stories of African American domestic workers, this book resurrects a little-known history of domestic worker activism in the 1960s and 1970s, offering new perspectives on race, labor, feminism, and organizing.
In this groundbreaking history of African American domestic-worker organizing, scholar and activist Premilla Nadasen shatters countless myths and misconceptions about an historically misunderstood workforce. Resurrecting a little-known history of domestic-worker activism from the 1950s to the 1970s, Nadasen shows how these women were a far cry from the stereotyped passive and powerless victims; they were innovative labor organizers who tirelessly organized on buses and streets across the United…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Moya Bailey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Misogynoir Transformed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Where racism and sexism meet-an understanding of anti-Black misogyny
When Moya Bailey first coined the term misogynoir, she defined it as the ways anti-Black and misogynistic representation shape broader ideas about Black women, particularly in visual culture and digital spaces. She had no idea that the term would go viral, touching a cultural nerve and quickly entering into the lexicon. Misogynoir now has its own Wikipedia page and hashtag, and has been featured on Comedy Central's The Daily Show and CNN's Cuomo Prime Time. In Misogynoir Transformed, Bailey delves into her groundbreaking concept, highlighting Black women's digital resistance to anti-Black…

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