Hopefully only a graduate student can say that Moynihan has come up a lot this week. Because of personal interests, classroom pontifications, and reading assignments, I have been confronted with the image of black women featured in Patrick Moynihan’s now infamous report at least a half dozen times this week. Plus there was one direct reference to mammy. Interestingly or sadly, the mammy comment was a question of my knowledge of her existence; as if she was, or is, real.
The images of black women that seem most real to the people that I confront everyday only operate as words and images in my mental archive. Tucked between a coonin’ image of Jim Crow and the porch monkey figure a classmate said I resembled in high school, the mammy and the black matriarch are no longer tangible to me but merely colors and letters on a tattered page.
If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing me, then you’ve basically seen Juanita Brown, my paternal grandmother, who was once my family’s matriarch. Toffee colored skin. Round face. Full cheeks. Juanita and I looked like sisters a few generations apart.
A few months after I headed to undergrad at Fisk, my grandmother passed away. The episodes around this tragic event are clouded in my memory yet her habits still deeply shape my day-to-day life. My passions for hoarding groceries, walking aimlessly through TJ Maxx for hours, and eavesdropping on my family members’ conversations were inherited from her and are still quite tangible.
I’ve slowly come to understand that the connection I share with my grandmother has larger cultural implications. This realization came when one of my peers asked me after our African American historiography class if, there were any books that discussed the role of the grandmother in African American culture? At the time, I thought why should there be. But slowly I have come to see how the cult of the black grandmother could challenge, dismantle, and reconstruct the mammy, or the black matriarch.
In her writing, Toni Morrison highlights the importance of ancestors in African American culture. Ancestors also seem to be important for feminists, and surely African American feminists. With chapters on performances of femininity, labor, and food production alongside old pictures of family reunions and snapshots of Juanita, Helen, Bea, and Mary long before they were grandmothers, my study of the would-be cult of the black grandmother could be centered on the themes that really define the experience of African American women: creating a way, fighting back, and finding joy. And the feminist in me dreams that by honoring the women who define black womanhood for me, mammies and black matriarchs will begin to seem like just paper and words for society at-large.
Beatrice J. Adams was born in Alton, Illinois and currently resides in New Jersey. Beatrice graduated with a B.A. in History from Fisk University in 2012 and with a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago in 2013. She is interested in African American History and the History of the American South. She enjoys visiting museums, listening to This American Life , reading historical fiction, and shop ping .