The Corner

Mammy

I have to dissent from the comments on Mammy in Gone With the Wind, both as Hattie McDaniel portrayed her, and as Margaret Mitchell wrote her. I do it even as an intrigued, though sometimes exasperated, friend of the West Coast Straussians.

The small question of Mammy is related to the larger question: Why weren’t the Confederates Nazis? If they radically denied human rights, as I believe they did, what separates them (if anything) from more recent unpleasantness?

Sometimes, damned little did. The treatment of black Union prisoners during the Civil War was barbarous, to take one example. Yet the southern slave regime did not live up (or down) to this norm most of the time.

Part of the reason was economic. Caribbean sugar slavery, before the abolition of the slave trade, maximized profits by working field hands out (that is, to death) and shipping in new ones. Every acre had to be given over to sugar (also coffee in St. Domingue). There was no profit in taking good enough care of slaves to let them reproduce in large numbers. The rice and indigo plantations of coastal Georgia and South Carolina mimicked Caribbean conditions to some extent; but the northern and upland south had a different climate, hence different dynamics.

But another part of the reason lay in minds of southern slaveowners. They saw themselves as Christian patriarchs (had to see themselves so, in order not to see themselves as buyers and sellers of men). The role modified the reality, as roles often do.

Strange human interactions (strange to the sternest economic or moral judgments) sprang up throughout the world of bondage. Mammy is not a dunce or a dupe, or a clown (or not only a clown). Margaret Mitchell wrote a rounded character, and Hattie McDaniel played one. It is crude moral point-scoring to argue otherwise.

I will not be swayed by people e-mailing scattered lines of dialogue or description. As in any book or movie, you have to read the whole megillah..

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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