March 3, 2008
60, Number 22
“Perhaps one of the most significant things that I can accomplish … is to establish the differences between the literary character and stereotype mammy, the famous advertising trademark of Aunt Jemima and the actual African American women whose names were lost when they became ‘Mammy.’”
- Excerpt from “Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory,” by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
March 3, 2008
Motherhood as life and work: Devoted teacher minds the ‘mammy’ stereotype
By Amye Walters
Can teaching be an obsession? When speaking with Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, you quickly realize every topic of conversation comes back to education, and you think how lucky her students are that she is obsessed. Wallace-Sanders’ studies of women’s and African American issues started with her undergraduate education. When faced with a stack of admissions brochures, one school caught her attention: Oberlin College.
“I went to Oberlin for two reasons. One, my mother was always impressed with Oberlin College students. And also there was an African American woman on the cover of their admissions material. The first black woman to graduate from an American college, graduated from Oberlin, Mary Jane Patterson,” explains Wallace-Sanders. She was “stunned and impressed” at the college’s cover choice of this 19th century, African American alumna.
For some teaching might be in their blood; for Wallace-Sanders it is the sap of her family tree. Her parents were both educators. Likewise, her husband’s parents were both college professors. The two met while attending Oberlin, and are now associate professors at Emory. Mark Sanders is in the English department, while Kimberly has a joint role with the Department of Women’s Studies and the Institute for Liberal Arts.
The Sanders’ eldest son, Isaiah, might be one of the youngest students to have attended an Emory class. The 6-year-old sat in on one of his father’s fall semester classes. For the first-grader’s formal education, his parents chose The Friends School for its unique scholastic approach.
“They approach social justice as a kind of language that children can learn. You teach them to look at situations with compassion. It’s based on Quaker ideals: simplicity, peace, compassion, integrity, and taking care of the Earth for the next generation,” Wallace-Sanders says.
Taking what he’d learned, the younger Sanders became the teacher, educating his parents on the importance of recycling, which is now a regular practice in the family’s home.
The most recent addition to their home is their youngest son, Joshua, who was adopted at birth last year from North Carolina. Wallace-Sanders describes the adoption process as “harrowing, and incredibly long. We waited two years, and had two potential adoptions fall through.” But he’s home now, and clearly that’s all that matters to her.
Wallace-Sanders takes care to separate her classroom from her home. Students aren’t dinner table fodder, and research tools for racial and ethnic stereotypes remain in Wallace-Sanders’ office. She collects nipple dolls for her research and black angels for her home.
The angels “are personal” and grace every room at home, but the dolls stay on campus and are used in classroom discussions. Nipple dolls, produced in the 1920s, are “about 2 inches high and made from bottle nipples that were painted black and dressed up to look like a mammy figure,” she explains. Designed as finger puppets, these dolls are still sold online.
Wallace-Sanders has taken a “comprehensive look” at the mammy figure, the African American woman as a maternal caretaker. To her, it is a means to learn about culture. “Thinking of the mammy as a prism, you see different things about racial interaction, American culture and history, motherhood, childcare and memory,” she says.
Her recently published book, “Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory,” evolved from her doctorate dissertation. “It’s a subject that I deeply care about,” she says of researching beyond the common stereotypes of maternal African Americans seen in literature and cinema.
Wallace-Sanders plans to expand the scope of her knowledge through a global study of the mammy figure and its perceptions outside of the U.S.
Whether it’s turning a dissertation into a published book, a study beyond geographic borders, or the curriculum she imparts, life is a constant metamorphosis for her.
Currently, she is reading “My Friend Leonard,” by James Frey — initial research for a course “about the narratives around addiction and influences of race and gender” that she would like to develop as a freshman seminar. “I love to teach freshmen because they don’t have as many preconceived notions about their futures. And it’s easier for me to introduce them to the idea that you can have a conscious, positive impact on the culture and the planet.”