The name’s Ruth

Mammy from ‘Gone With the Wind’ has her own story to tell.

Published: March 28, 2014 12:47:04 am

Mammy from ‘Gone With the Wind’ has her own story to tell.

Mammy, who stalks through the pages of Gone With the Wind, bristling with devotion and starched petticoats, will finally have a name. Nearly eight decades after the epic novel was published, the Margaret Mitchell estate has authorised the publication of a prequel, Ruth’s Journey, written by Donald McCaig and with Mammy as the central character.

The novel begins in 1804, when Ruth is brought from the French colony of Saint Domingue, present-day Haiti, to Savannah. It gives her a past and a dialect that is far removed from the Southern cadences of the Tara plantation in Mitchell’s novel.

The Old South of Mitchell’s imagination is crowded with several troubling assumptions, and Mammy is one of them. In her fierce loyalty to the O’Hara family, in her concern for Southern propriety, in her magnificent disdain for other black people, Mammy is portrayed as complicit with the project of slavery. She embodies the ideal master-slave bond that the South goes to war for.

Her past is obliterated so that she has no ties apart from those that bind her to her masters. Mitchell’s beloved character also feeds into the “Mammy stereotype” that recurs in American literature and popular culture through the 19th and 20th centuries. The large, loud, broom-wielding but maternal black woman who is often a figure of fun, the brutality of slavery sublimated in caricature.

McCaig is not the first to try set the record straight on the slaves of Mitchell’s novel. In 2001, The Wind Done Gone parodied the original and told the story from a slave’s perspective.

Neither is Mammy the first literary character to be rescued from unjust fiction. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, for instance, takes up the story of Bertha Mason, the Creole mad woman in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Perhaps literature can make amends for the wrongs of literature, if not for the wrongs of history.

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