From Mammy to Sapphire: The Reincarnation of Historical Stereotypes

Hattie McDaniel portrayed a stereotypical mammy in "Gone With the Wind" Earlier this w...

 photo hattie-mcdaniel-gwtw_zpsc9783116.jpg
Hattie McDaniel portrayed a stereotypical mammy in "Gone With the Wind"
Earlier this week I watched the documentary EthnicNotions. This award-winning film examined how images and stereotypes of blacks during the 18th and 19th centuries helped to fuel and justify the institution of slavery and the inhumane treatment of blacks.  From cartoons to movies to theatrical black face performances, the image of blacks was morphed to portray them in any way that would only further racism.

It saddened me to see how unfairly my ancestors were being portrayed.  It hurt me even more to know that these unjust representations were only advancing the hatred and discrimination towards my people, but along with the sadness and hurt came anger.  Anger that these stereotypes still exist today. 

Everyday black women have to fight the numerous stereotypes that have been created to put us in a box that is sometimes impossible to escape.  Not only do we have to battle the ghetto fabulous, welfare queen, gold digger, and loud mouth stereotypes, we also have to fight stereotypes that were created over a century ago. The three most popular historical stereotypes are mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire. Although these stereotypes are over a century old, they have become so ingrained into the consciousness of our nation that it seems as if it is impossible to get rid of them.

One of the most popular stereotypes given to black women during slavery was mammy. She was an asexual, dark skinned, wise, large caretaker.  She was a loyal and faithful slave who took care of the masters children and household.  The mammy stereotype was created to imply that black women were only suitable for domestic work and that they were undesirable by white men.  This stereotype continued after emancipation, this version of the traditional mammy can be seen in the 2011 film The Help and the most famous and wide spread depiction of her can be found on the cover of Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix.

Like the traditional mammy, the modern day mammy is almost always large, asexual, and wise.  The modern day mammy has a little more attitude than the traditional mammy and comes in many different skin tones (though not light skin).  Tyler Perrys Madea is probably the most famous depiction of the modern day mammy.  Her role as a mammy is even more solidified in the most recent film featuring Madea, Madeas Witness Protection, where she takes care of and gives advice to a white family. 

Along with the mammy stereotype, the jezebel stereotype was created during slavery. This stereotype was created to justify the brutal and continuous raping of black women. This stereotype depicted black women with sexual urges that they could not contain.  It projected the false truth that black women truly desired sex with their white masters.  This stereotype marked a stark contrast between the pure image of white women and the sexually promiscuous image of black women. 

You can find the modern day depiction of Jezebel in an almost unlimited amount of rap music videos.  These women are pictured in little clothing and are always the sexual accessory of a man.  The modern day Jezebel all ways shows too much skin and is over sexual at all times.  In the 2011 film Video Girl actress Meagan Good plays a modern day Jezebel who is practical owned by her white boyfriend as she performs as a sex object in music videos.

If a black woman didnt fit into the mammy or jezebel stereotype, she was thought of as Sapphire.  Hard, strong, emasculating, overbearing and controlling are all characteristics of the traditional Sapphire stereotype.  Sapphire was created to threaten the power of the black male and to place a negative gaze upon any black woman who dared to critique the horrible conditions black women had to face.  The Sapphire stereotype was popularized by the character, Sapphire Stevens, in the mid 20th century television show Amos n Andy.

Today Sapphire has evolved into the angry black woman.  This stereotype is probably the most popular characterization of black women today.  This woman is always yelling, starting fights, and insulting men.  Reality television is perpetuating this stereotype more than ever by highlighting fights between black women and failed relationships with black men.  This stereotype has become such a popular way to view black women that our first lady, Michelle Obama, who exudes grace and class has been classified as a modern say Sapphire.

Although the modern day version of these historical stereotypes sometimes differ from the original stereotype, the effects that these stereotypes have remain the same.  They alter the perception of black women and restrict us from identifying to anything but these untrue portrayals of us.  I believe that these deeply rooted stereotypes are as dangerous now as they were 100 years ago because although black women have achieved so much, the media continues to portray us in a few distinctive and highly flawed ways.

Alexis Jackson is a student at Vanderbilt University studying Creative Writing and Fine Arts. You can follow her at

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