American Roadside: The Mammy of Natchez

Mammy's Cupboard is located on Highway 61 on the outskirts of Natchez, MS
Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, MS

mammyhead

Visitors who travel to Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Highway 61 will be able to see an interesting relic of roadside architecture known as Mammy’s Cupboard. While some visitors just want to stop and photograph the building, locals go there because it’s a great place to get a meat and three and a slice of banana caramel pie that by itself is worth the five-mile drive from town.  For others, the building’s association with a “southern mammy” is enough for them to keep on driving.

Built in 1940, Mammy’s Cupboard originally operated as a family-owned Shell Gas station and convenience store.  It was a good investment at the time. The Natchez Pilgrimage, the spring tour of the town’s antebellum mansions, had grown exponentially since it began in 1932. Tourism to the town exploded following the enormous success of Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939. Many Americans who saw the film later went in search of houses like Tara;Natchez offered them that and more.

Today, the gas pumps at Mammy’s have been closed off, but it remains a family-owned restaurant that is primarily open for lunch.

White tourists, of course, were drawn to the Natchez mammy from the beginning.  By 1940, Aunt Jemima–a marketing figure based on a southern mammy–was already the most recognizable advertising icon in the country.  She reminded whites that this kind of happy servitude was still within reach.  For African Americans, mammy icons were a reminder of their second-class status.

Former Howard University Professor Sterling Brown wrote about the figure while traveling through the region in the early 1940s.  In A Negro Looks at the South, he observed:

Weston
Edward Weston’s photo, 1941.

“Outside of Natchez, as a come-on for tourists, is the Mammy Gas Station and Barbecue Stand. With clean-cut features, a trim waist, and an elegant hoopskirt, a tall erect statue of a Mammy stands there, fronting the highway so proudly that her bandana seems out of place.  My host explained why: the yarn goes that she was intended to be a Southern belle, but when the bodice was poured, the bust filled past all planning.  Natchez objected to the breasts being so pendulous, and the statue’s complexion was colored to a deep chocolate.  Hoopskirt and waist and features still belong to the belle, but it is a colored girl, Egyptian-like, who welcomes the tourists to Natchez and invites the white natives to barbecue.”

In the more than seventy years that Mammy’s has been open, her skin tone has grown lighter in appearance–more white than black. She was still rather dark in the early 1990s, but has since become very fair–perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by the owners that the dark skin was at best inappropriate, and worse, an offensive reminder of the not-too-distant past.

mammypostcard
Postcard, 2013

Yet if you were to stop by Mammy’s Cupboard today, you’d still be able to get a postcard of the restaurant from the days when she was still dark.  It’s a small reminder of William Faulkner‘s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What Happens When a New York Company Tries to Brand “Southern Style” Sweet Tea

Southern Style Sweet Tea from AriZona by way of Brooklyn, NY.
My friend’s Southern Style Sweet Tea from AriZona by way of Brooklyn, NY.

Recently, a friend and I were having lunch when I noticed an image on the side of her AriZona “Southern Style” sweet tea.  It caught my attention because of the image used to brand this tea as southern–19th century steamboats on what we can probably assume is the Mississippi River.

I find it interesting that in 2013 that a company determined that it would associate “southern” with antebellum paddle-wheelers that were used to not only carry travelers, but tons of cotton cultivated by thousands of slaves. That’s when I did my research and discovered that AriZona had originally used an even more offensive image to suggest “southern style” when the product came out in 2008.

Back then, the tea was branded with the image

The original image of AriZona's Southern Style Sweet Tea featured an antebellum plantation.
The original image of AriZona’s Southern Style Sweet Tea featured an antebellum plantation.

of the “big house” of a southern plantation, with a southern belle in the foreground.  It was reminiscent of early advertising that incorporated images of the Old South–advertising tropes that are more than a century old. The original can rightly drew the ire of consumers for promoting an image of the Old South and the slavery that’s associated with plantations. It forced the company to change the image and make a public apology.

But why did the company approve the image of a plantation in the first place?  Why did they follow it up with another image from the same era? I’d argue that it’s because the company, founded by two guys from Brooklyn, have no sense of American history nor do those in charge of its marketing understand modern southern culture.  Rather, they rely on the same tired tropes of the South. Clearly, there’s some sense that the South not only hasn’t made it into the 21st century; it never made it into the 20th!

So, to marketing firms above the Mason-Dixon I say this:  Come visit and quit relying on tired stereotypes.  You’ll thank yourself and you won’t make stupid mistakes like AriZona.

What do Boy George and Mississippi in 1870 have in common?

As I sang and danced to the 1983 Culture Club hit “Karma Chameleon,” I was completely unaware of the Pop South associations that I would totally get today if the song were new.  Recently, I watched the YouTube clip of the music video “Karma Chameleon” and was astounded when I saw “Mississippi–1870″ claimed as the video’s setting.  Clearly, I hadn’t paid attention when it was shown on MTV. That is, when MTV really meant “music television.”

Filmed in Weybridge, England, the video features blacks and whites dancing together (not possible in 1870s Mississippi) dressed in all manner of costumes that are not necessarily of the period. The Chameleon, in this case, was a Mississippi gambling boat souped up to look like a nineteenth-century steamboat. Of course, Boy George looks like he always did, like Boy George–in makeup, colorful clothes, braids,and his signature hat. About the only thing reminiscent of the South might be the harmonica riffs, yet even those are far from bluesy.

It’s just a small reminder that what passes as “southern” has long been a favorite trope for the producers of popular culture.  It was also fun to watch again.

Historic Natchez Conference: Civil War to Civil Rights

Boxwood Garden, Natchez
Boxwood Garden, Natchez

I’m pleased to be able to participate in the annual Historic Natchez Conference this week from Wednesday, April 17 through Saturday, April 20th.  The focus of the meeting is “Civil War to Civil Rights.”  I’ll be speaking about my new project about a murder case that made national headlines in 1932. It’s known locally in Natchez as the “Goat Castle Murder.”

William C. Davis, professor of history at Virginia Tech, is giving a keynote address.  He is the author of Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America (2003).

Inside the Eola Hotel
Inside the Eola Hotel

The conference will be headquartered at the historic Eola Hotel. As with many small towns with nary an airport in sight, folks there know how to show people a good time.

Longwood Plantation, Natchez
Longwood Plantation, Natchez

If you ever get to visit Natchez, you should.  As they say there, “Natchez is in this world, but not of it.”  Seeing is believing.