The American South at the Oscars

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

The American South has been the subject and setting for countless films over the years and many of them have been nominated for Best Picture, and more than a few have won the Oscar.  And this year is no exception. Among the nominees for Best Picture are “12 Years a Slave,” most of which is set in Louisiana, and “Dallas Buyers Club,” set in Texas. (Update: 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture)

While the 1930s was known for movies set in the Old South, the first motion picture set in the region to receive an Oscar nomination was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” (1932) in which a wrongly-convicted James Allen (played by Paul Muni) serves time on a southern chain gang.  The next southern-based film to get an Oscar nomination was “Jezebel” (1938), starring Bette Davis who won the Oscar for Best Actress. Set in Louisiana, it is one of the better films in the genre of the plantation legend, because of its stars, but it still employs African Americans in stereotypical roles. One year later, in 1939, “Gone with the Wind” (GWTW) surpassed all previous films of its kind and not only won Oscar for Best Picture, it was truly one of the first films to become a blockbuster, and its representation of the South shaped popular perceptions of the region for decades to come.

Gone-With-the-Wind-gone-with-the-wind-4368646-1024-768
Gone with the Wind

Oscar-nominated films set in the American South after GWTW include the following:

*Denotes winner of Best Picture

The Little Foxes (1941)
The Yearling (1946)
All the King’s Men (1949)*
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)*
Midnight Cowboy (1969)*  (included because of Jon Voight’s character Joe Buck)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Deliverance (1972)
Sounder (1972)
Nashville (1975)
Norma Rae (1979)
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The Big Chill (1983)
Tender Mercies (1983)
A Soldier’s Story (1984)
Places in the Heart (1984)
The Color Purple (1985)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)*
JFK (1991)
The Prince of Tides (1991)
Forrest Gump (1994)*
The Green Mile (1999)
Ray (2004)
Capote (2005)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Blind Side (2009)
Winter’s Bone (2010)
The Help (2011)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Django Unchained (2012)
12 Years a Slave (2013)*
Dallas Buyers Club

Back in 1938, German director Kurt Neumann said that the South was “one of the best subjects Hollywood has ever had for sustained interest,” adding “we are just beginning to understand the South.” At the time, Hollywood was still making films focused on the Old South. While films with a southern setting continue to draw on regional stereotypes, not all of them do. And yet even in 2014, it seems fair to conclude that Hollywood is still “just beginning to understand the South.”

Pop Culture’s Southern Gentleman

This winter Atlanta, (and the South more broadly), got skewered in the media when a snowfall of just two inches snarled traffic on the interstate highways that cut through the heart of the city, causing several hundred people to abandon their cars and walk home, in some cases, for several miles. Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update covered the news story in classic SNL style by having “Atlanta resident” and storm survivor “Buford Calloway” offer a firsthand account.

The character of Buford Calloway is one in a long line of southern gentleman and a central figure in the pop culture pantheon of southern icons who make up the plantation legend. The southern gentleman, in fact, has a history in popular culture that extends well into the antebellum period. One of the earliest descriptions of the southern gentleman can be found in John Pendleton Kennedy’s book Swallow Barn (1832), who appears in the character of Frank Meriwether, a 45 year-old Virginia planter. Kennedy introduces him this way:

“Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him. The first has given him a comfortable full figure, and the latter certain easy, contemplative habits, that incline him to be lazy and philosophical. He has the substantial planter look that belongs to a gentleman who lives on his estate, and is not much vexed with the crosses of life.”

Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind
Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind

The southern gentleman has long been seen as an insular man who doesn’t venture far beyond his homeland (the South) or, in the case of Frank Meriwether, his estate. He is well-read and attentive to his personal appearance, but he’s not really a man’s man. He’s a tad soft, because he owns the land and doesn’t work it. You can see hints of these character traits in SNL’s Buford Calloway. He clearly doesn’t venture beyond Georgia, or even Atlanta, and lumps South Carolina in with “the North.”  And, he’s a well-groomed fellow who not only doesn’t appear to engage in manual labor, he likely gets manicures.

Tom Hanks in The LadyKillers (2004)
Tom Hanks in The LadyKillers (2004)

A century after Americans were introduced to Frank Meriwether, the southern gentleman of popular culture had changed very little. He made regular appearances in films of the 1930s.  He was Duncan Bedford (played by Randolph Scott) in “So Red the Rose,” Herbert Cary (played by John Boles) in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in “Jezebel.” More than anyone, he was Ashley Wilkes who Leslie Howard brought to life in “Gone with the Wind.”  (Sorry ladies, Rhett Butler was not a gentleman.) More recently, Tom Hanks offered his interpretation in 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” a Coen Brothers remake of the 1955 film set in London, as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.

The Southern Gentleman drinks bourbon.
The Southern Gentleman drinks bourbon.
The Southern Gentleman Costume
The Southern Gentleman Costume

The southern gentleman has also been used as an advertising icon, most often for the sale of Kentucky bourbon, but also beer.  There’s even a southern gentleman “costume” that can be purchased for special occasions.

What’s notable, of course, is that there’s nothing modern about the southern gentleman. At least not in popular culture. He’s still a character of the Old South. He has a mustache and goatee. He probably drinks bourbon. He may even dress like he’s still wedded to the land of his ancestors.

He’s Buford Calloway. The only difference is Buford’s modern suit of clothes.

Faith and Conviction in Southern Appalachia: The Death of a Snake-Handling Pastor

Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Just this past weekend the news came down from the hills of Kentucky that Jamie Coots, the pastor of a snake-handling church in Middleboro, had died after a bite from a timber rattler while ministering to his church.  This is a scenario that has been repeated for generations in this small sect of Appalachian congregations, most of which exist in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. Yet what sets Coots’ death apart from the others is that he was the star of a popular series on the National Geographic Channel called “Snake Salvation.”

I admit to having my doubts about what National Geographic was up to when I first heard about the show.  I even wrote a blog in which I pondered about this being another retrograde reality show on the region.  I worried about the fact that the pastor’s last name was “Coots,” because I’m sensitive to the fact that people might poke fun at what they saw as a “hillbilly named ‘Coots.'”  I’m originally from Appalachia, so I know the cruelty that people bestow upon hill people.

So, I watched several episodes of “Snake Salvation.”  With a cynical eye at first. But my cynicism gave way to sincere interest and even appreciation. Because what I saw was a show that took seriously the faith and conviction of Jamie Coots and his family and of his protegé Andrew Hamblin, the pastor of another snake-handling church in nearby LaFollette,Tennessee. The series, I believe, helps viewers better understand their religious beliefs, which are similar to Pentecostal sects throughout the South, save one difference–the emphasis on Mark 16:18 on taking up serpents.  And unlike TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” Coots and his family do not act like, nor have they been made to look like, buffoons.

Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Pastor Coots wanted the viewers of “Snake Salvation” to understand that, as people, they were more than about hunting and handling poisonous snakes. And while the show emphasizes that part of their faith, one also can surmise that these are people who love and care about one another and who have daily challenges beyond finding snakes for a church service. Theirs is a deep conviction, and while I personally do not hold their views about religion or snakes (or the role of women, for that matter), I can respect what makes us different. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

In the few days since his passing, people have cast harsh judgement on Pastor Coots, his family, and this sect in the most insensitive way imaginable. Read some of the comments on the NPR post about this story and you’ll see what I mean. They don’t bear repeating here.

National Geographic will air a tribute to Pastor Coots and I encourage you to watch it and consider what I’ve written here.  And if you are so moved, read Dennis Covington’s book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.

The story of this man’s death should not lead people to judgement, but to a better understanding and respect for differences in faith.

Have Y’all Heard? Voices from the Southern Blogosphere

The Pop South Rooster Word Cloud

Writing posts for Pop South has been an enjoyable experience, and it’s also provided a means for connecting with the larger public about the ways in which the American South is represented in popular culture. This is especially important for folks like myself who work in academia, where our critics suggest that we exist in a bubble and are out of touch with the “real world.”

I, for one, have always wanted to burst that bubble and bridge the gap that exists between academia and the broader public. To put it plainly, I’ve long felt that I should be able to explain what I write about in terms that members of my family, who never went to college, can understand.

My work as a public historian–working for museums and writing exhibit text–helped me to bridge that gap. Today, my blog serves that purpose and not by “dumbing down” the intellectual considerations. A person doesn’t have to have a college degree to be smart, but I find that dispensing with the academic jargon that can separate “us” (the academics) from “them” (the general reader) is especially important in a blog whose purpose is to communicate about topics in a way that most people can understand and appreciate.

I’m happy to say that I am not alone here in the southern blogosphere, as equally like-minded folks are adding their unique take on the region and its culture. If scholars want to be relevant beyond the academy, and if southern studies wants the same, then we must take advantage of new forms of communication in order to reach the broadest possible audience.

I look forward to others joining the mix, because there’s plenty of room for new voices. For now, here’s an introduction to some southern blogs and bloggers whose writing I think you’ll enjoy:

Civil War Memory–So much of what is written about Civil War memory concerns the South and how memory of the war has shaped, and continues to shape, southern culture. In this long-running blog, historian and teacher Kevin Levin explores this topic with his readers by examining everything from new books, to popular media, to the never-ending divisiveness of the Confederate battle flag.

Cobbloviate–This is a blog hosted by James C. Cobb, Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor and Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia.  Dr. Cobb offers his own special take on the South and southerners and generally with a healthy dose of humor.

Field Trip South is the official blog of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. It is a feast for the eyes and the ears as the SFC shares the archival resources of its phenomenal collection of materials that explore “the emergence of old-time, country-western, hillbilly, bluegrass, blues, gospel, Cajun and zydeco musics.”

Interpreting Slave Life–Nicole Moore, public historian and consultant, hosts this blog on one of the South’s most prickly historical issues–slavery.  She does so without sticking her head in the sand, addressing head-on the issue of slave interpretation at historic sites across the South.

New South Negress–Zandria Robinson’s blog offers a no-holds-barred approach to issues of region, race, and culture. Dr. Robinson is a professor of sociology at the University of Memphis who teaches courses in southern studies and who offers a fresh voice on southern black cultures.  Her observations on southern hip-hop are a must read.

Off the Deaton Path–Stan Deaton, Senior Historian at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, is one of the newest to this genre of writing.  You may know him from his Emmy-winning role as host of Today in Georgia History, but he’s recently added blogging to his repertoire. Dr. Deaton’s blog isn’t southern specific; still, his explorations into regional issues (especially as they relate to Georgia) are worth your time.

Red Clay Scholar–Regina Bradley has a Ph.D. in Literature from Florida State University and she writes about hip hop culture, race, and the U.S. South.  She also has a great video interview series called Outkasted Conversations.  You should definitely check it out!

Southern Foodways Alliance–The SFA blog has several contributing authors who offer readers everything from a good southern story to a delicious southern recipe. You’ll learn new twists on southern foodways and discover things about the region you didn’t even know existed.

Talk About the South–Dayne Sherman is a Louisiana native and an associate professor of library science who blogs about southern history, politics, folklore and religion with a particular focus on his home state. And he has the enviable Twitter handle @TweettheSouth.

“Party Down South” and “Southern Charm”: South Carolina’s Turn at Reality Television

When I first wrote about the South in reality television a few years ago, it seemed like a disturbing trend that would hopefully die a quick death. But no. Today, the reality shows that exploit the region have expanded from a trickle to a flood. And even within this genre of programming there are state “franchises,” so to speak, with Louisiana being the best example.  Nearly every state in the region has served as a backdrop for a reality-based show, but not all. South Carolina? It’s your turn.

Mark Sanford's declaration of love for his mistress at a 2009 press conference.
Mark Sanford’s declaration of love for his mistress at a 2009 press conference.

The state usually takes it on the chin for its conservative politics, or more pointedly, conservative politicians who draw the wrong kind of media attention. Think of former governor Mark Sanford’s tearful display of love for his mistress after he went “hiking on the Appalachian Trail.”  Or of Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. Even the Democratic Party was put to shame when Alvin Green–an unemployed veteran indicted for showing pornographic pictures to a female student at USC–became the party’s candidate for Senate.  And on it goes.

This spring, however, South Carolina is being showcased in two new reality shows, making this a total of three for the Palmetto State. It is already the site of TLC’s Myrtle Manor, a show that covers the hijinks of people who live in a trailer park in Myrtle Beach. But, I digress. The new shows include CMT’s “Party Down South,” filmed in Murrells Inlet (near Myrtle Beach), and Bravo’s “Southern Charm,” featuring a group of poorly-behaved Charleston socialites, a show locals have condemned to no avail. Hint: there’s nothing charming about this bunch.

The cast of CMT's "Party Down South"
The cast of CMT’s “Party Down South”

“Southern Charm” will be out in a couple of months, but “Party Down South”  (PDS) has already cranked up.  The show is produced by SallyAnn Salsano, who is the “mastermind” behind MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and it does what MTV’s “Buckwild” couldn’t manage to do, which was to create a southern equivalent with characters like Snooki and the Situation.

The gist of the show is that the cast (most of whom hail from Deep South states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) is staying at a rented house near the beach, where they share bedrooms, go to bars nearly every night, get drunk (a lot), fight (this goes with drinking), have sex, eat meals together “like a family,” have a “job” by the marina, and show their collective asses. Sound familiar?

So what is southern about the show?  Essentially, the setting, the accents, colloquialisms (“pop a squat,” “cooter,” and “coon ass”) and some good ol’ redneck fun, which usually involves trucks and mud.

CMT has become the primary network for redneck television and “Party Down South” is one in a long line of shows that hit the same tired notes of southern-based reality television. The formula involves working-class southerners, in this case young ones, as imbeciles willing to do anything for a little cash and attention. Being on the show is likely going to be the biggest thing to ever happen to them, and producers know it.  No doubt there were several hundred “hopefuls” who wanted to be on the show.

The thing is, I knew people like this in high school.  Girls that drank too much and got into fights. Guys that would do anything for a laugh.  Many of my classmates may have found them amusing in the moment, but they also felt embarrassed for them. The difference today is that the cast of PDS may never be able to escape their immature past, because it is forever preserved on film and has been shared with millions.

The cast of Bravo's "Southern Charm."
The cast of Bravo’s “Southern Charm.”

CMT and SallyAnn Salsano are the real winners here, as the network may boost its youth demographic and Salsano her financial portfolio. The losers, of course, are South Carolina and this cast.

Bravo promises a different group of southerners in its series “Southern Charm,” but don’t expect much different from what’s on over at CMT.

You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

Freedom of Speech? Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson quacks about homosexuals and “the blacks”

Phil Robertson from A&E's Duck Dynasty
Phil Robertson from A&E’s Duck Dynasty

Duck Dynasty, the enormously popular reality television program produced by A&E, is under fire thanks to some eye-opening statements made by Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, in an interview with GQ magazine.  That’s Gentleman’s Quarterly, in case you were wondering.  And, the comments weren’t so, shall we say, gentlemanly.

Essentially, Daddy Duck equated homosexuality with being one train stop short of bestiality.  And, he seems to believe that “the blacks” who worked for white farmers in his home state of Louisiana were “happy,” going so far as to say “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!” (from “The Gospel According to Phil,” GQ Blog, December 18, 2013).  Since Robertson quacked the truth, he’s been suspended indefinitely from the show.

No one should be surprised by this and it was just a matter of time before we were going to hear it, if not from Phil, then perhaps one of his sons.  We can expect religious conservatives to make negative comments about gays.  We can also expect a white southerner of Phil’s generation to refer to African Americans as “the blacks,” as though they are a separate species.  In that regard, he has something in common with Paula Deen.

Yet the focus has been on his statements about homosexuality. Gay advocacy groups like The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have been been quick to call Robertson out for what it says are “anti-Christian” views. That’s red meat for conservatives, who have jumped to his defense saying that liberals are “hysterical” (Rush Limbaugh), or “intolerants” (Sarah Palin), and that Phil was just expressing his First Amendment Rights (Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal).

No one seems to have taken much issue with A&E who has crafted a statement distancing itself from Robertson’s remarks.  Yet producers knew.  Robertson was quoted in the GQ article as saying “we’re bible thumpers who just happened to end up on television.”  The network understood this going into its contract (and re-negotiations) with the beards.  And anyone paying attention knows that the more popular Duck Dynasty has become, the more free the family has been about sharing its conservative values and, in Phil’s case, strict interpretation of the bible.

For what it’s worth, I believe that Phil Robertson has a right to his opinions and his beliefs. The problem, of course, is that he’s on an enormously popular television show with millions of viewers over whom he has tremendous influence.  And while he has since given a statement “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me,” what he fails to realize is that there are people who are fans of the show who would disrespect others.  Or worse.  And therein lies the problem.

Perhaps the profits for A&E have outweighed the risks. The network has certainly been down this path before with Dog the Bounty Hunter.  Remember him? People may have forgotten that Dog was recorded using the “n-word” and not too long after, A&E cancelled the show.  It may come to this, much to the chagrin of Duck Dynasty fans, but for now it will be played out as a culture war cast by conservatives as a battle royale between “defenders of free speech” and the “Gay Mafia.”

Let’s all grab some popcorn.

Kanye West, Neo-Confederate, and 12 Years a Slave

Since Pop South isn’t a paying gig, I don’t always post items as quickly as I’d like. I’ve got a real job that needs attending to, which means that I’m a little slow to blogging about those stories that are on my mind.  Like rapper Kanye West sporting a Confederate battle flag on his jacket.  And, 12 Years a Slave.

From the film, 12 Years a Slave
From the film, 12 Years a Slave

Speaking of which, what a powerful film.  The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on true events in the life of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was captured and sold into slavery.  But it is so much more.  Based on Northrup’s narrative, the story itself is an amazing tale of survival. Yet the greater story is how the brutality of slavery damages the humanity of everyone associated with the system–from the slave owners to the enslaved, the slave catchers and the slave buyers, men and women.  This is the institution that the Confederacy sought to preserve.

Which brings me back to Kanye and that flag.  Not just any ol’ Confederate flag, of which there are several, but the Confederate battle flag.  Because we know Kanye enjoys a battle, especially when his ego is involved or, more importantly, his wallet. Some have called this move “genius.”  He would agree. Controversy = publicity = $$$.

Kanye West, Neo-Confederate
Kanye West, Neo-Confederate

What I find disconcerting is how willfully ignorant West is about the flag’s meaning. His public response to using it is to say: “You know, the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way—that’s my abstract take on what I know about it… So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag! It’s my flag! Now what are you going to do?”  Yea, Kanye, it represented slavery “in a way,” and it’s also been co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan, segregationists, and Neo-Nazis. In essence, you’ve cast your lot with them, too.

But, wait. He doesn’t care about that. In a more recent interview he said as much. “You don’t ever know what I’m trying to do. Black people stopping other black people from getting checks. . .Don’t nobody care about the Confederate flag on that type of level.”  Perhaps, but I don’t think we’re out of the (pecker)woods yet.

This brings me back to 12 Years a Slave.  Kanye West needs to see this film. Over and over again. Perhaps then, he’ll get why he’s wrong about the meaning of the Confederate flag.  He may never admit to it publicly, but in his heart, he will know.

About “Ask A Slave”

This is a thoughtful response to the video sensation “Ask a Slave.”

Interpretive Challenges

This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”

The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information…

View original post 1,388 more words

The Bitter Southerner: Writing with an eye for nuance

bitterFolks who write about the South, think about its history and culture, and bristle at negative assumptions about the region from those who really don’t know diddly about it, will likely enjoy a new online magazine called The Bitter Southerner. This isn’t the fluff you’ll find in Southern Living or Our State, though certainly there’s a considerable readership for nostalgia illustrated with Bob Timberlake paintings and photographs of iced tea in mason jars.

No, this is a weekly online magazine that offers thoughtful, erudite articles that consider the South in its complexity. It also does what I’ve sought to do with some of my posts on Pop South, which is to enlighten the ill-informed by showcasing a region that is far more nuanced than it is often presented in popular culture.

The Bitter Southerner comes to us from Atlanta and to date has begun a series on original southern cocktails (The B.S. Cocktail Series) and published an essay by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. This week the magazine hands over the reins to Ray Glier who has recently published a book on the SEC‘s dominance in college football.

Chuck Reece, the editor-in-chief, talked about the magazine in a recent radio interview and of how quickly word has spread about “The BS.”  Apparently, dozens of people from across the country (many of them ex-pat southerners) have “come out of the woodwork” offering to write essays, and for good reason. The Bitter Southerner is a smart magazine that appeals to the readers’ intelligence. So far, it recognizes that stereotypes, positive or negative, are not necessary in order to have a conversation about the South. That being said, it will be interesting to watch the direction the magazine takes in the coming weeks and to see how well it covers the region’s diversity.

New essays are published every Tuesday. I recommend you give it a try. And, if Chuck Reece is reading this, I’m available.

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.”