There is a restaurant in Natchez, Mississippi called Mammy’s Cupboard where you can slip beneath Mammy’s skirts and eat a delicious lunch with a sweet slice of pie for dessert.
“Affectionately” called “Black Mammy’s” by locals, the restaurant is a Dixie ode to the Old South, where Confederate flags waved gently in the magnolia scented breeze and the blood of enslaved Africans dampened the earth.
From miles around the White people come. Ignorant—or dismissive—of the subjugation and violence against Black female bodies that “Mammy” represents, they eagerly live out Gone With The Wind fantasies and giggle at the sight of the 30-foot tall Mammy standing silent, subservient and vulnerable to those who would part her skirt and rape her memory. To them, Mammy is delightful. She is mint juleps and cotton; antebellum homes and White supremacy. She is a reminder that once upon a time, White people owned other human beings and they liked it. Even more so, they would like it today.
Growing up as a little girl, I would see Mammy, with her silhouette seeming to stretch up to the blue sky, as an oddity, a throwback that aligned with the romanticization of slave trading and the Civil War. As I got older, though, the fury would curl in my belly at the blatant disregard of the Black experience in the Deep South, the dismissal of the brutalization that Black women faced—and still do—and the bold audacity to profit from generations of our pain. Through the years, Mammy’s owners would lighten her skin, as if the racism on display would somehow be mitigated by colorism.
PSA: It’s not.
Each time someone sits down inside Mammy’s skirt to dine, in my mind, they are gorging on the souls of Black folks, bloated with down home racism and chocolate pie.
It is through the lens of my experience with Mammy’s that I first laid eyes on images of Kara Walker’s exquisite A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby in the Domino Sugar Factory in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. Rarely has art simultaneously triggered so many emotions within me: pain, anger, sadness, fear, empathy, protectiveness, pride, joy. Love.
It is haunting, powerful, captivating.
Her body is positioned like the Sphinx, with the full breasts, round buttocks, thick lips and proud nose of a Black woman. Her vulva is exposed as if daring White patrons to look, touch and openly gawk at that which their ancestors took by force in slave quarters and parlors from Mississippi to Georgia.
Yet, she is much more than that. She is telling stories with her eyes. Stories of pain, yes, but also stories of survival, strength and grace. And as I studied the images with my heart in my throat, I thought about Mammy. I thought about the intense irony of Sugar Baby being naked, sweet, tempting and untouchable, while Mammy stands fully clothed and plundered on a daily basis, her value reduced to the price of a lunch special.
These two depictions of Black women, “Mammy” and Sugar Baby, both reflect the lived experiences of so many of us in this country. We are told that our bodies are both hypersexual and asexual. We are punished by society for our contradictions, cast as bad mothers and good Jezebels. We are physically, emotionally and spiritually assaulted and no amount of “respectability” can save us.
We have stretch marks on our souls from birthing a nation that has heaped so many atrocities upon us that it can’t even look us in the eye.
Yet, here we stand. Unbowed.