Deconstructing the Mammy Archetype

by | Jun 19, 2023 | Quilts

On June 19, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that the Civil War had ended and all enslaved people were free, two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. This momentous occasion has become a symbol of African American freedom and liberation and is celebrated each year by millions of people across the country. I can only imagine the joy enslaved African Americans must have felt when news of freedom reached them.

I chose the 2023 Juneteenth weekend to welcome African American quilters to Durham to celebrate that freedom and liberation through quiltwork in our Kindred Spirits: A Convergence of African American Quilters. In addition to lectures and classes, the conference also featured a pop-up quilt show entitled Deconstructing the Mammy Archetype Through African American Quilt Work. The quilt show exhibited quilt work from attendees that helps to visualize our thoughts, heal our spirits, and promote unity among the participants who sojourn with us. More than 400 members of the community were in attendance.

Quilting has been an important art form in African American culture through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and all the way to the present. Enslaved women used scraps of cloth to create functional and beautiful quilts. These quilts served to comfort and warm cold bodies. They have been used as both a form of artistic expression and a means of storytelling. African American quilt work is a tool today used to deconstruct and challenge the mammy archetype. Quilt artists use the medium to challenge and subvert racist stereotypes.

These quilts often feature images of African American women as strong, independent figures who are not subservient to white people. They may also incorporate symbols of empowerment and resistance, such as the fist as a prominent marker of the Black Power Movement. One example of a quilt that challenges the mammy archetype is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? by Faith Ringgold. The quilt challenges the viewer to confront their own feelings about the mammy archetype and the racist beliefs that it perpetuates.

By incorporating imagery and symbolism that directly confronts the mammy archetype, African American quilt makers are able to reframe the narrative and reclaim our own agency. For example, some artists have created quilts that depict African American women as strong and independent, rather than subservient and obedient. Others have used quilts to celebrate the beauty and diversity of African American women’s bodies challenging the notion that black women must conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. Quilt artist Bisa Butler for instance is taking the world by storm with her renderings of life-sized African American subjects that look like paintings.  She is noted as the modern quilt artist who has “catapulted quilting in the field of fine art.”

Additionally, some artists have used quilting to highlight the contributions of African American women to American society. For example, Harriet Powers, an enslaved African American woman from Georgia, created a series of quilts that depicted scenes from her own life as well as biblical stories and African folklore. Her work is a powerful testament to the resilience and creativity of African American women despite the constraints of slavery.

Overall, contemporary African American quilt work offers a powerful means of deconstructing the mammy archetype and challenging the ways in which African American women have been historically misrepresented in American culture. By using the medium of quilting to tell our own stories and celebrate our own experiences, African American women are able to reclaim our own narratives and assert our own agency.

Let us remember the legacy of African American quilt-making and the ways that it has been used to deconstruct harmful stereotypes. Let us celebrate the richness and diversity of African American culture. Let us also recognize the ongoing work that needs to be done to dismantle the systems of oppression that continue to impact the lives of African Americans today.