Several of my blogrolled bloggers have been talking about the historic unveiling of the Sojourner Truth statue at the Capitol. (For example: here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Said Michelle Obama at the Capitol Visitor Center ceremony:
I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the first lady of the United States of America….Now many young boys and girls, like my own daughters, will come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them.
Leave it to Melissa Harris-Lacewell to put this truly historic moment in even greater historical context. You see, if it were up to one group of proud Americans, we would have had a national tribute to Black women long before this. Their plans, however, were thwarted. And by other Black women. Unbelievable, I know.
What would this statue have been? I’ll let Professor Harris-Lacewell explain:
In 1923, Mississippi senator, John Williams proposed a bill seeking a site for a national Mammy monument. The Richmond, Virginia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was prepared to pay for the statue, which would stand on federal land “as a gift to the people of the United States . . . a monument in memory of the faithful colored mammies of the South.” The statue would have been in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, which had just been dedicated a few months. The “mammy bill” passed the Senate in February 1923 just weeks after the Senate defeated the Dyer anti-lynching bill. In other words, even while refusing to protect African American citizens from the domestic terrorism of the lynch mob, the Senate referred the mammy monument bill to the House of Representatives.
A National Mammy Monument. Lawdamercy.
At first I thought that I would, in honor of Mother Truth, do a whole piece on the flexibility of Black female racist/sexist stereotypes…how they have bent and changed to serve the needs of those who would seek to oppress us…how those who seek such further salt our wounds by then celebrating our lowered status. Instead, when searching the internets for inspiration, I came upon this personal memorial to mammies:
We heard that precious Ralph, our father, had had a “Mammy” when he was a baby. And of course, anyone who’s seen Gone with the Wind knows what a mammy is. Mammies were black servants who specialized in helping new mothers with babies; today, they’re called nannies. We have an old photo of baby Ralph in an elaborate lace christening dress held proudly by a large black woman, but no one ever told us her name. (Emphasis added. Source)
Here is the photograph that accompanied this text:
If you saw my previous post, “My People and Other People’s Children,” you know that I have somewhat of an obsession an interest in Black and other people of color and their—largely silent—lives as domestics taking care of the children of Whites. Isn’t it interesting here how status and privilege colors interpretation of an image? I, for example, would not have characterized this nameless woman’s expression as “pride.”
This is pride:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? (Source)