The mammy is probably one of the most familiar figures of plantation life. Usually imagined as a large, older black woman, this house servant was in charge of her master's children and domestic responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning. In the plantation house, the mammy was a caretaker, a housekeeper--maybe even a surrogate grandmother--and, for the most part, a myth.

Mammies did exist in the nineteenth century but over time, their numbers, their role, and even their girth have been exaggerated. As Deborah Gray White notes in Arn't I a Woman?:

Mammy was. . . the perfect image for antebellum Southerners. As the personification of the ideal slave, and the ideal woman, Mammy was an ideal symbol of the patriarchal tradition. She was not just a product of the "cultural uplift" theory, she was also a product of the forces that in the South raised motherhood to sainthood. As part of the benign slave tradition, and as part of the cult of domesticity, Mammy was the centerpiece in the antebellum Southerner's perception of the perfectly organized society.(1))

As with many American myths, the figure of the mammy was embraced in American popular culture. During the peak of her popularity in the early twentieth century, the mammy found her way into memoirs and books and became a stock figure in Civil War novels.

When the patriarchy of the South was incorporated into the Hollywood production system and Civil War novels were adapted into films, the mammy figure became a part of the American collective memory and even more difficult to change. From D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915 to David Selznick's adaptation of Gone With the Wind in 1939 and on through Walt Disney's interpretation of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus tales in 1946's Song of the South, the mammy was a familiar and reliable figure for American filmmakers--as any ideal servant should be.

In a medium of constant technological and ideological change, however, the relatively constant nature of the mammy now serves us in a different way as well. This figure can be understood as a barometer for the way race, history, and contemporary culture are reflected in American film. It seems safe to say that from The Birth of a Nation to Song of the South the mammy was a stock character. But the way in which that character was placed in relation to the rest of the world imagined in film offers us a way to find a bit of truth in the trappings of the myth.