In 2001 Alice Randall published The Wind Done Gone, a novel reinterpreting Margarett Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind from the perspective of “Cynara,” a recently freed woman who’d been raised as a slave on Scarlett’s plantation. Cynara, a character absent from Mitchell’s book and the film that followed, was Scarlett’s half-sister, the daughter of Scarlett’s father and Mammy, the loyal slave character immortalized on screen by actor Hattie McDaniel. Despite taking care to avoid the use of proper names from Gone With the Wind, Randall and her publisher were sued for copyright infringement by Mitchell’s estate.
That “unauthorized parody” will be joined this October by Ruth’s Journey, an official Gone With the Wind prequel commissioned by Mitchell’s estate. Here, too, the book will focus on a person of color, this time Mitchell’s Mammy, whom author Donald McCaig gives the name Ruth. On a recent episode of her MSNBC show, Melissa Harris-Perry hosted HUP authors Micki McElya and Khalil Gibran Muhammad to discuss the origins of the Mammy archetype and the issues inherent in this renewed focus on Mitchell’s creation:
McElya, as Harris-Perry notes, is the author of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America, a book that traces the trajectory of the loyal and maternal slave trope from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Aunt Jemima to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.”
From the book:
“Mammies,” as they have been described and remembered by whites, like all faithful slaves, bear little resemblance to actual enslaved women of the antebellum period. Black women did work in white homes, cooked innumerable meals, cared for white children, and surely formed emotional ties to white family members at times, but the mammy was—and is—a fiction. She is the most visible character in the myth of the faithful slave, a set of stories, images, and ideas that have been passed down from generation to generation in the United States, through every possible popular medium, from fine art and literature to the vaudeville stage and cinema, and in countless novelty items from ashtrays to salt and pepper shakers. These narratives are locked emotionally and politically to the slave narrative genre. Early versions produced in the antebellum period by proslavery white southerners were explicitly reactionary. The stories were designed to provide reassurance that their authors’ patriarchal benevolence was real, and was recognized and appreciated by those they enslaved. They were hurled northward in response to the publication of slave narratives detailing the horror and inhumanity of the institution, the speaking tours by activist runaways, and the impact of abolitionist works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As personally satisfying as they were politically and economically potent, tales of faithful slavery appeared with ever greater frequency.
Accounts of enslaved people’s fidelity constituted the ultimate expression of southern paternalism, which held that the relationship of the master to the slave was removed from market forces and economic exigency and functioned more like a familial relationship between father and child based on a set of mutual obligations and responsibilities as well as affection. Proslavery theorists argued that this was very different from the cold contract of “free labor,” under which bosses owed nothing but wages to the laborers they employed and could fire them at will. Slave owners claimed, by contrast, to be responsible for providing every aspect of enslaved people’s well-being, including clothing, food, housing, and medicine, and they bore this burden for the lifetime of their slaves as their obligation. The only thing required of the carefree slave in this scenario was work and loyalty. The faithful slave narrative, however, went one step further to argue that enslaved people appeared faithful and caring not because they had to be or were violently compelled to be, but because their fidelity was heartfelt and indicative of their love for and dependence on their owners. At their core, stories of faithful slavery were expressions of the value, honor, and identity of whites. They had little if anything to do with the actual perceptions and attitudes of the enslaved.
One hopes McCaig had occasion to make himself familiar with McElya’s work before embarking on Ruth’s Journey.