Disentangling “Mammy”: Negating Identity in Kindred, Dessa Rose, and Family

 There is a common thread between the protagonist’s in Kindred, Dessa Rose, and Family that demonstrates how African American female agency negotiates the antebellum role of “mammy.” In all three novels, the mammy role is in constant tension. The white slave holding mentality struggles to maintain the identity. It is viewed as a necessary condition of not just racial barriers but of the structure of antebellum society itself. The African American female struggles for freedom from this assigned and delegated role. Tough it is not only the preservation of this role she seeks to defeat. While she seeks liberation from its identification and its attributes, she must simultaneously dissolve its meaning in the mind of the slave-holder while not necessarily being reliant on the participation of white society to acknowledge the “mammy” role for its inferiority and oppressive conditioning. Self-determination cannot be conditional, nor can it be reliant, on white participation, sympathy, and understanding. This is the reason Dana maintains a limited trust in her relationship with Rufus, why Dessa finds it so difficult to accept Ruth as a companion, and why Always only hopes but does not expect her son, Doak Jr., to embrace her as a mother.

            There are initiating incidents in all three novels that denote the tentative margins of black female agency and how it learns its way around the opposing characters. In Kindred, Dana’s first encounter with with Rufus clearly demonstrates the fine line she must walk. When she appears by the river, even to save Rufus’s life, she quickly finds herself “looking down down the barrel of the longest rifle [she] had ever seen” (14). In Dessa Rose, Dessa’s relatively limited contact with whites is breeched by Nehemiah’s interest in her as a field study. He has own way to profit from her that differs only in style from her former master. He is another master in  pseudo-intellectual form, Williams “presents Adam Nehemiah as a representative of that form of hegemony which attempts to re-enslave Dessa by inscribing her within a ‘discourse that suppresses her voice’” (Rushdy 365). Dessa, still in chains, must impart knowledge towards Nehemiah’s own gentry ambitions. In Family, the singular most overt initiating incident is when Always is first taken to Doak’s property and she discovers her sister, Plum, has died being dragged underneath the wagon. This set in motion Always’s plan for freedom and complete control over the land and the Doak family. Likewise, this same resolve is signaled in Dessa Rose when she came out of the box to be appraised by Wilson before escaping from the coffle. Nathan describes the event followed by a grasping sententia, “She stood up” (134).

            The “mammy” identity must meet confrontation. It can only be challenged incrementally and the protagonists of these three novels negotiates the psychological terrain in order to find liberation from without instead of within the role. However, physiological barriers demand operating within the expectations of the antebellum south. When Dana returns to find Rufus near death at the hands of Isaac after attempting to rape Alice, Dana must play protectorate. She must nurse Rufus back to health to ensure her own survival and though Alice must give birth to Rufus’s child in order for Dana to ensure her family’s survival, Dana takes advantage of this moment to allow Alice to attempt to escape with Isaac. Through Dana’s predicament, Butler “assumes a non-Western conceptualization of history – one in which history is cyclical, not linear – in order to demonstrate ways in which certain forms of race and gender oppression continue late into the twentieth century and beyond” (Steinberg 467).

            The most significant confrontation in Dessa Rose takes place between Dessa and Ruth over the identity of Mammy. For Ruth “mammy” is partially anonymous to compliment Ruth’s own racial and sociological status. Like Dessa, Ruth must break through the psychological strongholds of the antebellum south,

The memory is painful partly because Dorcas has so recently passed away; but it is equally painful because it forces Rufel to confront an image of Dorcas as something other than her own alter ego. Rufel thinks of Dorcas as an extension of herself and is troubled when she recalls that Dorcas often held an opinion contrary to her own. When that happens, Rufel employs the second strategy of her appropriation of Dorcas’s life story she reconstructs her slave’s voice. (Rushdy 371)

Though for Dessa “mammy” is not a construct in any form. “Her name was Rose,” Dessa charges (119). She recites the names of Rose’s ten children, giving her back not only her name but her family and her life. Dessa’s mother challenges Ruth’s understanding of the world in ways she cannot quite grasp all at once. A similar confrontation that becomes more than can easily be understood in Family is between Always and Loretta when Loretta is in labor with Always’s granddaughter. Loretta vainly tries to kill the child before she is born. After that fails she demands that Always take the child as her own.

            Always turned her head sideways and looked down at Loretta. “You want ME to help


            “Yes, yes! I neeed help. But I need . . . I want you, to keep my baby. Let it . . .  be yours.”

            “But what I’m gone tell it? What it gonna call me?”

            “Mother . . . mama . . . mammy. Anything. I want you to raise it, as your child.” (169)

For Loretta the mammy identity is an undeniable construct of racial barriers. It is such an immediate reality that from her own identification within the lines of the mammy identity demands that she dispose of her own child.

Part of Williams’ strategy in Dessa Rose is to demonstrate the forms of delusion operative in a slave system nominally structured along familial terms. In particular, she negotiates the tension between the two major forms of fictive kin ties-between “adoptive” kinship and “quasi-filial’ kinship-in order to demonstrate their differences and to suggest something about their shared ideas of oppression. (Rushdy 368-369)

            The resolution for in these three novels part ways as each author shows a unique resolving thread  regarding the mammy identity. In Family, Doak Jr. is unable to accept Always. They grow old directly across the street from each other after emancipation and though Doak Jr. prospers he is never satisfied. He feels compelled to own his mothers prosperity as well. His inability to accept his own race is manifest in his inability to accept his mothers right to exist with any degree of material prosperity. The woman who freed him, into white culture, also enslaved him within white culture. His final act of resistance to his own identity is to contribute to the uprising of the Ku Klux Klan in the region. Always dies surrounded by four of her grandchildren, only two of which will miss her. Cooper demonstrates the divided family line on Always death bed.

            In Kindred Dana kills Rufus when under the imminent threat of incestuous rape. In that moment she transported from her celestial role as care-taker to Rufus’s imagined role of self-perpetuating servitude. In her desperation, she comes to the brink of entertaining the idea. Her modern mind takes flight into survival mode under the duress of extreme consequence. Her own identity has been slowly torn into by the antebellum era. The cost of her sanity and her spiritual totality is marked forever by the loss of her arm at her final return home. “Dana’s psychological dispossession is mirrored by the actual loss of a body part-an arm-that is relegated forever to another, irretrievable era” (Steinberg 469). Likewise, in Dessa Rose, the final extreme moment that eventually finds the bond of friendship between Beth and Dessa comes in the prison cell. Having been found by Nehemiah, Dessa must prove her identity. She must prove she is someone else. Being examined in the prison cell she is befriended by Aunt Chole and set free. Under the treat of antebellum law Dessa is able to finally trust Ruth, who simply replies, “My name is Ruth…I ain’t your mistress” (232). Through Dessa’s acceptance Ruth finds her name, too.

Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. Print.

Cooper, J. California. Family. New York: Anchor Books, 1992. Print.

Mitchell, Angelyn. “Not Enough of the Past: Feminist Revisions of Slavery in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Kindred’” MELUS. 26.3. Autumn 2001. (57-75). JSTOR Web. 4 Nov. 2011.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “Reading Mammy: The Subject of Relation in Sherely Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose.” African American Review. 27.3. Autumn 1993. (365-389). JSTOR Web. 4 Nov. 2011.

Steinberg, Marc. “Inverting History in Octavia Butler’s Postmodern Slave Narrative” African American Review. 38.3. Autumn 2004 (467-476). JSTOR Web. 12 Nov. 2011.

Williams, Sherley Anne. Dessa Rose. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. Print.