Of Ambivalence: The Help, Obama, and the Ultimate Slave Re-Mix – The Feminist Wire

Of Ambivalence: The Help, Obama, and the Ultimate Slave Re-Mix

And so here we are.

In the same week, President Barack Obama became the first president in the history of Billy Graham’s “crusade,” and the only one among the murderer’s row of current presidential candidates, not to be deemed an indisputable, verifiable, name-brand Christian. And Octavia Spencer won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Minny in The Help.

You see the similarities, don’t you?

You know. You identify just a little bit with President Obama because of how people do him dirty in ways that they only do to Black people and (temporarily) certain immigrant groups. But you also think about how he has been assassinating citizens and stifling habeas corpus or the fact that he doesn’t have a crisis plan to address Black unemployment and appears to be turning his back on unions.

And, in a similar way, you identify with Octavia Spencer for doing such excellent work playing the role that your grandmother played in real life. Now, your grandmother played the role so that maybe your mother could escape it. But, at the same time, it angers you that Hollywood is leaving Black folks no option but to celebrate the 39-year-old Spencer’s inability to escape the same role that Hattie McDaniel could not escape. Just when you thought that maybe there had been progress since Hattie McDaniel’s time– boom, here comes Hollywood to bring it full circle.

It’s the “ambivalence” that Tavis Smiley spoke of right before Viola Davis accused him, and similarly minded Black people, of “destroying the Black artist” that I want to address here. The discussion Smiley had with Spencer and Davis, like many discussions of The Help, tends to conflate the domestic worker as a profession with the “Mammy,” an image of Black women that is centrally presented in The Help.

The problem folks have is with the “Mammy” representation.

And that isn’t the same as a problem with the domestic worker. The domestic worker is a very important profession that, in one form or another, has overdetermined Black women’s lives since the days of chattel slavery. Wanna celebrate the profession? Forget seeing The Help, a Hollywood fantasy of a white woman’s coming-of-age narrative. Get with living wages and benefits and an intact social safety net for professions like housekeepers, food service and hospitality workers, and certified nurse’s assistants. It’s great that The Help helps unions to de-invisibilize the labor of Black and non-Black domestic workers. Just don’t think for a second that an improved Hollywood image of domestic workers will do the work of Black freedom struggle. We know that it won’t.

No, the coldest part about all the disputes around this film is that many people in the conversation have assumed that “Mammy” was just a pejorative way of saying “domestic worker.” That’s not exactly a safe assumption. “Mammy” is what Hollywood (and the antiblack society of which Hollywood is an articulation) does with the image of Black women’s bodies and energies, regardless of how well they play their roles (filmic and otherwise). The “Mammy” archetype may have originated in the slave domestic sphere, but it is more than just another name for “domestic worker.” It’s more complex than that, so much so that critiquing the “Mammy” should never be the same as critiquing the representation of domestic workers. “Mammy” is an archetype of literature and performance, a fantasy figure dreamed up in the political unconscious of modern slaveholding societies. I know people who still manipulate the “Mammy” stereotype in everyday interactions with white people just to make sure it’s still there. (They report that it is.) “Mammy” exists in the viewer’s state of mind, whether she is represented on a bag of Blancaflor self-rising flour in Argentina or the flash of a performative moment in the meeting room of a nonprofit organization.

And we may as well not get it twisted.

When I say that “Mammy” exists in the viewer’s mind– it matters whose mind. If Black people’s unconscious fantasies mattered in any essential political sense, “Mammy” would not exist, at least not in the form that she does. “Mammy” gets her staying power from the only minds that matter– the ones that belong to the type of viewers who are disproportionately protected by the police, rather than the type who are disproportionately victimized by them.

Even when Black folks are part of the Hollywood machine, we lack the politico-military force to redefine “Mammy” and have our definition stick. We can adopt critical (or uncritical) views about the “Mammy” figure that the dominant group circulates so broadly and evolves so quickly that we can’t stop them. We can perform parodies of the “Mammy” figure. But “Mammy” is the composite figure that results from a whole range of assumptions surrounding large-bodied Black women who smile at, get “sassy” with, and avoid being sexually threatening toward, the white power structure. As numerous commentators have suggested, “Mammy” is a quite protean archetype, capable of arising in numerous different avatars. Few have said it better than James Baldwin in the book, The Devil Finds Work (New York: Dial Press, 1976), where he describes the “Mammy” figure he sees while watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Birth of a Nation in the same trip to the movies:

…on the same day, in two films divided from each other by something like half a century, with the same loyal nigger maid, playing the same role, and speaking the same lines. (71)

Wow. Before we go any further, it looks like the long-deceased author was kind of raw, what today we might call Paul Mooneyish, so I’m going to have to ask that all nonblack readers excuse us for a moment, or be prepared for real talk of the kind that will get you in big trouble if we hear you saying it. Speak on, Brother James:

In The Birth of a Nation, the loyal nigger maid informs the nigger congressman that she don’t like niggers who set themselves up above their station. When our black wonder doctor [Sidney Poitier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner] hits San Francisco, some fifty-odd years later, he encounters exactly the same maid, who tells him exactly the same thing, for the same reason, and in the same words, adding, merely, as a concession, no doubt, to modern times–she has come across our black hero, having entered his room without knocking, holding only a towel between his nakedness and her indignation–“and furthermore to that, you ain’t even that handsome!” For she is a part of the family: she would appear to have no family of her own: and is clearly prepared to protect her golden- haired mistress from the clutches of this black ape by any means necessary. The inclusion of this figure is absolutely obligatory—-compulsive-no matter what the film imagines it- self to be saying by means of this inclusion. How many times have we seen her! She is Dilsey, she is Mammy, in Gone with the Wind, and in Imitation of Life, and The Member of the Wedding–mother of sorrows, whore and saint, reaching a kind of apotheosis in Requiem for a Nun. (And yet, black men have mothers and sisters and daughters who are not like that at all!) (71-72)

So another component of the “Mammy” also becomes apparent here: She may be saintlike in her devotion to white womanhood and childhood, but she often has less love for her own people, and especially for Black men. Also, Baldwin importantly points out that these are fantasies. The archetype is an invention of the white mind, and does not reflect some underlying truth about Black women and girls. What it reflects is the coordination of white dreamwork and the political structure that enforces that dreamwork as if it is true in some essential way.

The point is that the updates of “Mammy” remain “Mammy” just the same over time. Mammy re-mixes may even move beyond the domestic arena. You know how the image on the bottle of Aunt Jemima “evolved” to look more like a corporate secretary? That’s still Mammy. You know how the big-bodied and hefty voiced Pine Sol actress and the Popeye’s Fried Chicken actress both seem more like the Black best friend than the loyal Black domestic servant? Still Mammy. If the assumptions about Black women changed because the window dressing around them changed–or even because their performance of the role was repeated with a slight revision– then Michelle Obama wouldn’t have had people talking all kinds of stuff about her body and her “anger” when she became First Lady. The “Mammy” is more than just a stereotype that she can ignore. The power structure–which she is in but not of– still defines her by her proximity to, or distance from, overdetermining images derived ultimately from slavery.

And that reminds me of the parallel of the “Mammy” to Barack Obama.

In Franklin Graham’s estimation, President Obama’s Christianity doesn’t even rise to the level of Romney’s Mormonism. And we know with what lack of aplomb the pundits and politicos of the Christian right greet Mormonism as a Christian faith. (Hell, plenty of Protestants don’t even think of Catholics as Christians. And after all this time…) No, Obama cannot be Christian enough– not to the satisfaction of Graham’s “crusade.” But why?

Blackness travels. It morphs. And that means that the connections blackness has to slavery travel with Black people across space and time and independent of what the individual Black person herself or himself actually does or performs. A friend of mine went to South America. Her blackness was waiting there for her. A woman in Canada ordered a sofa from China. Her blackness was delivered to her in the form of a sofa labelled “nigger brown.”  The forces that fix blackness are not essentializing, metaphysical forces, but they act as if they are, and they are more powerful than perhaps we have thought.

What sociologist Orlando Patterson said in Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1982), his extensive historical study of slave societies, is very much the case today:

The slave’s name was only one of the badges of slavery. In every slave- holding society we find visible marks of servitude, some pointed, some more subtle. Where the slave was of a different race or color, this fact tended to become associated with slave status-and not only in the Americas. A black skin in almost all the Islamic societies, including parts of the Sudan, was and still is associated with slavery. True, there were white slaves; true, it was possible to be black and free, even of high status-but this did not mean that blackness was not associated with slavery. (58)

“[W]as and still is…” That connection to slavery is an essential feature of racial blackness that travels across time and space. It even permeates religion. So, although blackness is a creation of the human mind, it functions as if it is a metaphysical essence (even though you will never hear Patterson himself say so). As Patterson, quoting the work of Winthrop Jordan, says of the ways that the black servant of the early Americas was viewed, “he did not belong to the same community of Christian, civilized Europeans” as did the white servant (7). That’s right. Even being Christian did not rescue the Black slave from what blackness meant to the people with power. “The strangeness and seeming savagery of the Africans, reinforced by traditional attitudes and the context of early contact, ‘were major components in the sense of difference which provided the mental margin absolutely requisite for placing the European on the deck of the slave ship and the Negro in the hold.'” Sound familiar, Reverend Graham?

It might have been otherwise, but it was not. It is not. “The slave was the ultimate human tool, as imprintable and as disposable as the master wished,” says Patterson. “And this is true, at least in theory, of all slaves, no matter how elevated” (7-8). (Patterson devotes an entire chapter to pointing out how historically common it has been for slaves to have positions managing important administrative, governmental, and military affairs in empires like the Ottoman Turk and Roman empires.) Slaves are serviceable and can be put to work in all kinds of capacities in which they are forced to endure all kinds of bullshit. And that might be what’s going on with our ambivalence toward Barack Obama and Octavia Spencer. We want to be proud of them, but, at some level, behind all the proud sporting of tee-shirts and tears of joy, we know that– in the era of crack, the prison-industrial complex, and AfriCom– The Help and the Obama administration signify new modes of Black neoslavery. If we want to understand why Spencer’s success feels as much like a step backwards as a step forward–if we want to understand why Obama’s inability to be recognized as a Christian (among adulterers and white supremacist candidates) is of a piece with the dirty work he does for powerful conservatizing forces — there is something that rings awfully familiar about Patterson’s concept of the ultimate slave.

Just because you have high rank does not mean that you are not a slave. Just because you don’t have someone with an actual whip sitting behind you on a horse doesn’t mean you are not a slave. Who knows? Maybe in 2,000 years, Patterson’s intellectual progeny will include in their study of our times “the Black neo-slaves” who, according to Frank Wilderson, “are so comprehensively fungible that cinema can make them die and smile at the same time” [Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, (Durham, NC: Duke, 2010) 115].

We have now reached a phase in which conditions of life for the mass of Black folks appear more deadly, more impoverished, more encaged, more unstable, more genocidal than they have been before for quite some time. And Black people are running things. Mass imprisonment has made it so that there are more Black people “in the system” than were in slavery in 1860. Meanwhile, it may be that slavery was the last time that Black people had full employment. As Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) says “Niggas in Poorest.”

And yet, if you look at our media profile (consider, for instance, the song at which Yasiin Bey was aiming), we appear to be successful beyond the wildest dreams of our housecleaning forebears. These days, we aren’t just cleaning the windows of the the power structure. We have also been placed in the windows of such outer offices of the power structure as chief media spokesman for US military operations in Iraq (General Vincent Brooks), General Manager of BP Community Outreach in connection with the Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico (Iris Cross), and even the White House. Our usefulness as commodities of public image making defines us to such a degree that in 2008, liberal NY Times author Nicholas Kristof urged “rebranding the U.S. with Obama” and in 2009 the Nobel Committee awarded Obama the prize for peace mere months after his inauguration for little more than his “vision” of change–which is to say, for his speeches, his public performances.

What is going on here?

So, maybe Black people are slaves of a different kind. Many of us are prison slaves. Some of us are ultimate slaves. But slaves we remain. Today. In the USA, many of us are in high positions in the military, government, industry, and the nonprofit sector. Still slaves.

I get no more joy from saying this than George Jackson got from saying it in Soledad Brother. This is not how I would encourage Black youths to study hard in school, or Black inmates to keep struggling on. But it may be that the sooner we start thinking of our situation through the lens of neoslavery, the sooner we can start thinking in terms of neoslave rebellions. And the sooner our so-called allies can stop sitting on the fence about whether or not they plan to be on the wrong side of history.

Maybe the parallel lines of the modern-day ultimate slavery we saw this past week should meet: They should just give President Obama an Oscar.