A few days ago, we talked about diversity and I hit on a few points, but I realize that the issue is much larger than those few bullets I touched on. In fact I felt like #WeNeedDiversityinBooks should be a reoccurring theme here at The Novel Twist to help those of you who are still struggling to understand the importance of diversity.
In this post we’re going to tackle character development beginning with descriptions. I’m starting with descriptions, also known as archetypes, because I think this is where writers get it wrong the most.
Let’s start with the “Mammy” archetype.
Archetypes, for those of you who don’t know or may be unsure, is a typical character, an action or a situation that seems to represent universal patterns of human nature. Think The Hero or The Mentor or the Innocent Youth. They can be super helpful when you’re just beginning to think about your characters, but I feel very strongly that they should be used as a guideline. While the use of archetypical characters nearly guarantee universal acceptance, if you are writing a character of color, you have to be vigilant in making sure that the characters and situations don’t stumble into an overly used, offensive archetypes like “The Mammy”.
The “Mammy” archetype falls under the Nurturer archetype. She is typically a secondary character and serves as a mentor, mother figure or voice of reason. She’s often a robust woman with an ample bosom and a great booming voice that she uses to scold or love in turn.
Now I hear you saying, but Tasha, there are tons of stories out there with Mammy characters? Why is this offensive.
Okay, I’ll break it down Barney style.
I hope I don’t need to remind anyone of America’s slavey history and the Civil Rights Movement. If so, Go here—> This is not the space for a history lesson. But by and large, America’s history of slavery and poor treatment of blacks is exactly why the Mammy archetype is so offensive.
When people of color see this type of character depicted over and over in literature as well as film, it only reenforces the idea that society can only see us in this very narrow, one dimensional way. We’re sick and tired of this character being placed in a story to nurture and care for White characters. This archetype is pervasive and sneaks in at the “Save The Cat” moment to either save the character from herself or offer some sage wisdom. If this is the only purpose your Mammy character serves to the plot, edit her out.
Let me say that again so you can hear it.
EDIT HER OUT.
There are instances where this is forgivable. Novels set in a time period when a maids/slaves are part of the plot is about the only one that comes to mind.
I hear you over in the corner, throwing the names of authors and book titles that have successfully pulled off the Mammy character.
Give it up, people.
You are not Suzie WhatsIt who wrote that “charming” story about black maids in the 1960s.
And while we’re being honest? That book was only successful because it attempted to tell the story in a way that made the maids more than one dimensional.
Attempted being the operative word in that sentence.
Seriously, people. It’s been done and done again. Please find some other way to portray black women in your stories. We can be just as complex and dynamic as any other character you create if you write it right.
Okay, once more for the people in the cheap seats. If you’re thinking of writing in some big bosomed, ample bodied, nurturing Black woman to coddle your character in times of need, feed her sweet cornbread and wash her hair, just remember one thing….
I ain’t ya mammy.