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Advocates proclaimed slavery to be morally superior to free labor, arguing that it was more truly humane, based on a lifetime of mutual care and obligation as well as natural racial hierarchies.
In his painful and powerful essay “My Family’s Slave,” Alex Tizon writes that, as a child, his primary point of reference for the place Eudocia Tomas Pulido, or “Lola,” occupied in his family’s life was “in slave characters on TV and in the movies.” That Tizon saw echoes of “Lola” in the character of Pompey, a subservient, scraping, black manchild to John Wayne’s rugged frontiersman in , is telling.
It points to the ways in which stereotypical depictions of black people and popular narratives of slavery and emancipation provide a very American context for Tizon’s story of immigration and exploitation.
Depicted as a surrogate mother and wonderful cook, the caricature—with her wide grin, soothing croon, and enormous size—became iconic.
Isolated from other black people within the white household, “Mammy” was fierce in her love for her white family; she was a disciplinarian, endearing in her gruffness and lack of refinement, but decidedly asexual and never an object of carnal desire.
I examine this tradition and its wide cultural and political impacts in my 2007 book, In the decades before the Civil War, southern slave owners responded to abolitionists and to published accounts of the horrors of slavery by formerly enslaved men and women with stories of black fidelity and love that described joyful servitude, childlike dependence, and refusals of offered freedom.
The faithful-slave trope was the ultimate example of southern paternalism that described the master-slave relationship as essentially familial, existing outside of market forces.Inevitably, they turned to “Mammy’s” warm embrace and asserted her abiding love to be evidence of their own growth, learned empathy, and commitment to future equality.Her faithfulness showed that white people could change, while “Mammy” stayed locked in her place. The central white character in that story is a young woman named Skeeter in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 coming into her own as a writer, fighting her family and the expectations of the dominant gender order, and discovering her sympathies with Civil Rights activism, all through her love for and painful loss of the black domestic worker who “raised” her.The novel includes an author’s essay at the end called, “Too Little, Too Late: Kathryn Stockett in her Own Words,” as if the entire book weren’t already her own words.In it, she describes her continued love for Demetrie Mc Lorn, a black woman employed by Stockett’s grandparents who cared for her and her older siblings in the aftermath of their parents’ divorce in the 1970s. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine.The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s presented new challenges to these toxic popular fictions and generated a new version of the story.Confronted with black resistance, the stark realities of structural racism and economic exploitation, and their own complicity—even if they were only children at the time—many white southerners sought to explain the complexities of their past relationships with black domestic workers and apologize for their families’ roles in profiting from and perpetuating inequality.article “My Family’s Slave.” The full series can be found here.For another historical perspective, please see Vicente Rafael’s essay on understanding Lola’s story in the context of slavery in the Philippines.Even as Tizon condemns the coercion “Lola” endured, he looks for signs of her affection in her cooking: “I could tell by what she served whether she was merely feeding us or saying she loved us.” Tizon, like Stockett, is desperate to understand the care he got as unconditional love, as rising above and separate from coercion But in this genre, that rising above always signals the growth and goodness of the narrator.The essay, then, is not “Lola’s” story, but Alex Tizon’s reflected through her.