NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– Words are powerful things; inflicting pain on one hand and pride on the other. The word “Mammy” refers to enslaved black nursemaids and nanny’s who took care of white children in the antebellum south during a large swath of decades in American history. The term “Mammy” also refers to one of the most controversial racial slurs the country. One woman in New Orleans attempts to separate a nasty stereotype from the actual women who were named.
“I would think that if people were to look at the name of my company called Our Mammy’s, I believe they would think it was a babysitting service.” In 2007, Gaynell Brady began researching her family’s genealogy to discover the many powerful black Louisiana women in her lineage. She wanted to create something to honor those women and decided upon “Our Mammy’s,” a company of community outreach and history presentation. Controversially, Gaynell conjures up quite a bit of emotions, because in addition to the storytelling, she dresses herself as a black nursemaid.
“I wanted to create something for the women who sacrificed their lives to take care of others,” says Brady. The women who were called “Mammy” had many duties, that could include, cooking, breastfeeding children that were not biologically hers, serving, washing and laboring. Her days were long and tireless, without breaks. As the period of reconstruction ensued, black nursemaids were victims of the sharp subject matter of vaudeville shows and product advertisements such as Aunt Jemima pancake mix (which debuted in 1889). In 1939, Director Victor Fleming would unveil his film Gone With The Wind, to forever change the film industry. The film was beautiful, epic and long and it became the highest grossing film in history. The film was also a product of the age’s ideology and low sensitivity to racist archetypes. Hattie McDaniel played “Mammy,” the sass-mouthed mother figure of Tara Plantation. Hattie McDaniel would become the first black entertainer to win an Oscar, opening the door for African Americans in the film industry. However, as the years progressed, her portrayal would be looked at with scrutiny from the black community. She was seen by many was an actress who submitted to the racist stereotype casting.
Gaynell Brady saw Hattie McDaniel’s character as “a part of that Jim-Crow-Era Stereotype.” She also views McDaniel as a hero saying, “she took on a strong role. She stood up when people were trying to stop her from being that big mouth in the room. “Sometimes people see me in the clothes and think I want to show everyone how to be the docile African American woman who wants to show people how to be the happy slave, and that is far from my intent. Black nursemaids were indispensable because they moved about the town and knew who African Americans could talk to and should avoid. She was also a healer! Mammy raised everybody,” says Gaynell Brady.
Brady says that if she can get children to question her clothes, then she can open them up to conversation. “When I wear these clothes, sometimes people are offended by just the clothes alone. Both the clothes and the name are meant to get your attention. I always remember that the story of Mammy is embedded in my DNA. If you see me in the community, come talk to me. I’m sure I can change your mind,” says Gaynell Brady.
To engage with Gaynell and her company, you can click here.