Mammy Dearest

Elizabeth Chin is associate professor of anthropology at Occidental College and author of "Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture."

Just in time for February, Black History Month, I received a catalog advertising a mammy pincushion for $19.99. The catalog comes from a company I’d never heard of called the Country House. Its pages are filled with generic “country” decor items such as gingham flour-sack dishcloths, enamelware and American flag-motif tin plates, many of them reproductions of antiques. And what could be more American than a reproduction mammy item?

The mammy pincushion looks like a standing doll and has a typical mammy look -- that is, a fat, dark (black), roly-poly-faced woman with a big red mouth, white, bulging eyes and a bandanna on her head. Think Aunt Jemima before she got a permanent and pearl earrings. She wears a ballooning plaid skirt and a white apron.

“The fabric and trim have been faded and aged just right!” proclaims the catalog copy, chirpily explaining, “I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t the original!”

At first, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Then I read the part that said, “The cast-resin upper body is chipped and distressed by hand.” I decided then that screaming was probably most appropriate.


Chipped and distressed by hand? I imagined a room full of newly painted mammy pincushions, with women -- underpaid Malaysians probably, hired because of the supposed dexterity and delicateness of their fingers -- holding the figures and artfully bashing them on the table to “distress” them.

Maybe there are posted guidelines for how to best distress the mammy pincushions’ upper bodies. “Make sure there are at least three or four visible blemishes on the face,” the memo might say. Or, “Each mammy pincushion should be chipped in two places to the depth of 2 millimeters. This may be accomplished with the rock hammers provided at each workstation.”

Providing more detail, the instructions might continue, “While blemishes should be visible, care should be taken that chips and scratches do not take on the appearance of wounds arising from abuse.” Because we wouldn’t really want to make it look as if slavery hurt anybody, right?

The “artfully aged” apron rides up under the mammy pincushion’s bosom and drapes across her stomach, ending halfway down her bulging skirt. It’s her apron that is the pincushion, and if this figure were a real person, the pins would be stabbing right into her womb. Try as I might, I can’t seem to find anything innocent or delightful in that image, despite the catalog’s obvious attempts at creating just that tone.

Actually, this item is probably best understood as a kind of voodoo doll. As someone who has been studying Haitian vodou for years, I can tell you that the voodoo doll as it exists in the imagination of the United States doesn’t exist. Oppressed descendants of enslaved people are not lurking around in darkened rooms sticking pins into dolls representative of their former masters, or anybody else.

The voodoo doll, and all it says about the hate and rage implicit in the master-slave relationship, is a creation of the irrational white imagination. It is not an instrument of black occult magic. And it certainly isn’t part of vodou, which is a religion, a way of life, really, that seeks to know the beauty and mystery of the cosmos -- much as any other religion does.

Like the mammy pincushion, voodoo dolls are produced for and purchased primarily by whites. As such, they are racism-rendered material. And racism has created far more violence and hurt in this world than vodou ever has or ever will.

It’s just a silly pincushion, right? How seriously can you take something like that? It’s not that the object itself -- while certainly offensive -- is dangerous. What’s dangerous are the sentiments it represents: racism as down home and cozy; hatred as defanged “style”; genocidal impulse as accessory. Shrunk down to the 4 by 6 inches occupied by this little figure, these terrifying and terribly American propensities can sit unassumingly on a shelf, resting like a dormant virus, whose potential to spread infection needs only to be nudged a bit.


Ironically, in one photo, the mammy pincushion is artfully posed next to a print featuring the phrase “Love One Another.” The domesticated hatred condensed into the mammy pincushion, however, says quite the opposite. And for only $19.99, it can be yours. A devilish bargain indeed.