Memory Study Wins Human Rights Award

I recently tapped Micki McElya’s Clinging to Mammy: the Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America as the "Best Myth Buster of 2007."  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and plan to introduce the subject to my Women’s History course this spring.  McElya’s work on the changing image of Mammy has been awarded the 2007 Myers Center Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights:

Clinging to Mammy" was among 10 works awarded the 2007 Myers Center
Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights. The Boston-based
Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights
recognizes books "that extend our understanding of the root causes of
bigotry and the range of options we as humans have in constructing
alternative ways to share power," according to a press release….

In her book, McElya explores the power and influence of the seemingly
ubiquitous "Mammy" as she appears in films, songs and literature. The
book uncovers the character’s true extent as a myth and social presence
ranging from advertising to the grocery store including even child
custody cases, white women’s minstrelsy, activism, anti-lynching
campaigns and the Civil Rights Movement.

The book follows the
image of "Mammy" from 1893 through the 1960s as it transformed
individuals and public expectations of blacks, McElya said. It tells
the story of Nancy Green, a working black woman in Chicago, how she
became the symbol of Aunt Jemima and toured around the country many
years and was not even remembered as Nancy Green in her eulogies, she
said.

Over at Civil Warriors Brooks Simpson asks how far historians should go to correct misrepresentations of the historical record.  McElya’s scholarship takes this one step further by challenging the deeply-ingrained perceptions of race and gender that are often reinforced within the marketplace as in the case of Aunt Jemima.  I applaud and encourage historians whose work addresses social/political/racial issues without sacrificing the analytical skill and striving towards objectivity that defines the best in historical studies.  If we are socially and historically constructed than it is at times useful to be reminded to step back to ponder the cultural girders.

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