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Wednesday, September 16, A.D. 2009
Memorializing Mammy

I found a fascinating site called Southern Spaces, which features an anthropological focus on the American South. The article that I read is a multimedia page about black mammies, called “Southern Memory, Southern Monuments, and the Subversive Black Mammy” by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders. The article betrays tinges of postmodern hues, but such is to be expected from a hyphenatedly named professor of “American and Women’s Studies.” Nonetheless, I found it interesting, especially with its many photographs of black mammies and their little, white wards.

There are also several pictures with the mammy or house slave as part of the family portrait, and such testify to the Southern “myth” (Wallace-Sanders’ word) that the antebellum social order was inclusive and harmonious—in its own way. When white families get their family portraits taken, the inclusion of a black woman says a lot about her relationship to the family.

I am not defending the legacy of Southern race-based slavery, but we should acknowledge how much like medieval feudalism it usually was.

On second thought, given the various options of social organization, feudalism might be one of the better arrangements—though a more just and efficient social arrangement would incorporate the class flexibility of the Republic. Verily, verily, sometimes golden children are born to parents of bronze and iron, and vice versa.

As such, maybe antebellum Dixie really was better than industrial era New York. Both slaves and factory workers were human resources exploited for their labor. Yet, in the former case, there was often a personal and familial connection that would have been absent in the factories of expendable, cheap human labor (stinking fresh from Europe). Was the life of the typical black slave in Georgia really worse than the life of a typical Irish factory worker in Manhattan? The difference is really that a clever and able Irish immigrant could change his lot in life, whereas a similarly clever and able negro slave would be fettered to his master’s interests. He might get himself into a better position on the plantation, but he would not usually get himself freed (though such did happen). Who wants to lose capable help, especially when one doesn’t have to pay him a handsome salary?

Emancipation, like the civil rights legislation in the twentieth century, was very good for the “talented tenth.” For everyone else, the struggle of life continued along. Some things got better, while other things got worse. “Progress” is orchestrated and enjoyed only by the best.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, September 16, Anno Domini 2009
Philosophy | AnthropologyPolitics • (3) Comments
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