Welfare queen, hot momma, unwed mother: these stereotypes of Black women share their historical conception in the image of the Black woman as domestic. Focusing on the issue of stereotypes, the new edition of Trudier Harris’s classic 1982 study From Mammies to Militants examines the position of the domestic in Black American literature with a new afterword bringing her analysis into the present.
From Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Black writers, some of whom worked as maids themselves, have manipulated the stereotype in a strategic way as a figure to comment on Black-white relations or to dramatize the conflicts of the Black protagonists. In fact, the characters themselves, like real-life maids, often use the stereotype to their advantage or to trick their oppressors.
Harris combines folkloristic, sociological, historical, and psychological analyses with literary ones, drawing on her own interviews with Black women who worked as domestics. She explores the differences between Northern and Southern maids and between “mammy” and “militant.” Her invaluable book provides a sweeping exploration of Black American writers of the twentieth century, with extended discussion of works by Charles Chesnutt, Kristin Hunter, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, William Melvin Kelley, Alice Childress, John A. Williams, Douglas Turner Ward, Barbara Woods, Ted Shine, and Ed Bullins. Often privileging political statements over realistic characterization in the design of their texts, the authors in Harris’s study urged Black Americans to take action to change their powerless conditions, politely if possible, violently if necessary. Through their commitment to improving the conditions of Black people in America, these writers demonstrate the connectedness of art and politics.
In her new afterword, “From Militants to Movie Stars,” Harris looks at domestic workers in African American literature after the original publication of her book in 1982. Exploring five subsequent literary treatments of Black domestic workers from Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying to Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Harris tracks how the landscape of representation of domestic workers has broken with tradition and continues to transform into something entirely new.
Trudier Harris is University Distinguished Research Professor Emerita of English, the University of Alabama, and J. Carlyle Sitterson Distinguished Professor Emerita of English, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she taught courses in African American literature and folklore. A few of her many published books are The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South; Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature; Depictions of Home in African American Literature, and her memoir, Summer Snow: Reflections from a Black Daughter of the South. On March 10, 2023, Dr. Harris was inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.
“There are no Dilseys here. If white authors had the luxury to canonize long-suffering Blacks, the Black author has had a more complex and more painful relation to the subject. One cannot but wince to learn how many of these authors worked as maids, sometimes even after they had achieved a degree of literary success.” —The New York Times Book Review