What does the word “Mammy” mean to you?

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As I mention in the Acknowledgement page of my novel, Burning Prospects, I believe that our race plays a big part in how we view the events of the world. Not just current events, but past events as well. And as much as we might think we are sensitive to what other people experience, we simply cannot view life through their “lens”. I have learned this lesson many times over the years. 

I grew up with “Liz” and all of my cousins still talk of her with the fondest of memories. She worked for my grandparents for years. Here is a picture of her holding me when I was less than a month old:

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She sometimes referred to herself as our “mammy”. I am pretty sure that is why “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind is my favorite character, hands down. But I experienced quite a realization when I watched the movie, “The Help”. I couldn’t help but wonder about how much Liz missed with her own family because she spent 5 or 6 days a week taking care of mine. I literally cried over the fact that Liz is gone now and I can never ask her how she felt about that.

The last time I saw her, she was in a nursing home. It was years after my grandparents died and she still welcomed visits from us with open arms. In fact, I would pity the fool who would try to dodge a hug from her. It didn’t matter that she’d lost one leg to diabetes and had a catheter bag attached to the bed. She’d have found a way to wear out your hide if she thought you needed it. In fact, one of her last comments to us was regret that they’d confiscated her shotgun when she’d moved into the home because there was some old guy that wandered into her room at night who needed to learn a lesson! She was a formidable force in our family and she will forever be missed. 

The picture at the top of this post was taken from a book of the Ross family lineage which was written in 1911. Captain Isaac Ross’ story is detailed in this book and many of us who trace our ancestry back to him own a copy. I’m sure each of the families detailed in this book had a “Mammy” in their lives even in the years after slavery had ended. To me, I see this dedication as a genuine offer of gratitude to the women who served the families over the years. But if I were a descendant of slaves, I feel like I might see something else. 

So, I ask you what you think when you hear the word “Mammy”? How does the image of the Mammy with the young girls make you feel? I think it is important that we remember history is viewed differently depending on who is doing the remembering. It is my wish that we can learn from and respect other people’s feelings and views even if we don’t personally understand them due to our own unique frame of reference. 

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2 thoughts on “What does the word “Mammy” mean to you?

  1. Linda W. Johnston

    What a beautiful commentary, Melissa. I, too, wish that we could communicate with Liz and know what was in her heart and mind during that time. She was a very special person and she will always be missed.

  2. Sandra Stark

    For me, “Mammy” would be a person of color who loved and tended me as if I were one of her own. Since being a house servant was infinitely better than being a field hand, I would suspect that being a mammy would have been a preferred job, given the circumstances.

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