I think I was about 13 when I read my mother’s copy of . Not counting Rhett Butler, I fell in love with two concepts: red hair and green eyes, and Mammy.
This confession of Mammy-love came up recently when someone online referenced another favorite character loved for her supportive role, which reminded me of Mammy, and referencing her, I felt obliged to explain how it seemed as if I had, at one time, wanted my very own slave.
Scarlett’s mother, you see, was named Ellen, just as mine was, and her principal concern for her daughters was that they be well-behaved, pious young ladies. As was mine. This was a program that suited neither Scarlett O’Hara nor my 13-year-old self. Mammy may have scolded us (I say us in the character appropriation sense of the word), but she also indulged us and fussed over us and cared for us with the love and loyalty that we were sure we deserved.
Did I think about her being a slave? Yes, I think I did. I do remember some kind of justification for it because at some point, knowing that slavery was bad if someone had to be one all the time, I thought that maybe we could all just take turns. You think I’m kidding. I distinctly remember coming up with this brilliant idea all on my own. No doubt it had something to do with Gone With the Wind, wherein the slaves at Tara were a happy lot indeed.
Thirteen. Remember? You say you don’t know any 13-year-olds of today who are that ignorant. You’re very likely right. However, I turned 13 in 1956. My awareness of the black experience was something on the order of being vaguely aware that white people in the south still carried a grudge from the Civil War.That black people, Negroes as we called them in those days, had to drink from separate fountains and couldn’t use the same bathrooms. Silly, I thought, but at least everybody had one. The civil rights movement, which was just then gathering the head of steam that would eventually lead to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, was nowhere in my consciousness except as a vague feeling of “well, that’s not fair.”
Emmet Till had been killed in Mississippi the year before. I never even heard of Emmet Till until about 15 years ago, when a black friend of mine showed me a poem he had written about him at the time. He must have been about 13. Even now, when I checked “1955” in Wikipedia, the last reference is for August 27th – the first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. On August 28th, Emmet Till was beaten, mutilated, and shot before being dumped in the Tallahatchie River. I knew nothing. All I wanted was to be loved and fussed over and adored. By Mammy.
I wrote a piece for Martin Luther King Day a few years back, called simply MLK Day, in which I asserted that no one born in my time, on either side of the divide, escaped the blight of racism. That this is true to a greater degree than I believed even a few years ago is blatantly obvious today, as the latent racism in a large segment of this country has been awakened, first, sadly enough, by the Obama presidency and now ratcheted up to new heights by the Donald Trump campaign.
It seems as if someone has ripped the bandage from our great national wound to find it breaking open, festering, and revealing the poison that has been coursing through the body politic since the first slave ships landed. It’s still just as ugly and frightening as the mob that killed Emmet Till, and there is no way to justify it.
Some say that the only way to cleanse a wound is to open it, to let the poison out. Maybe so. But this poison is contagious. It is capable of contaminating anyone who feels vulnerable or fearful or resentful. I’m afraid of it. The Mammy I loved would take the whupping strap to these fools. And then the cops would show up and kill her.