From Mammy to The Marvelous Sugar Baby : The Art of Black Womanhood

Visitors are dwarfed by “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” by artist Kara Walker, on display inside the former Dom
Visitors are dwarfed by “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” by artist Kara Walker, on display inside the former Domino Sugar Refinery, located in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, Saturday, May 17, 2014. Four tons of sugar were used to create the 35-foot-high sphinx-like sculpture.The head of the large sculpture wears a kerchief and slightly exaggerated African features. Her breasts are exposed and her fists are thrust out, described by Walker as both submissive and domineering. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

There is a restaurant in Natchez, Mississippi called Mammy's Cupboard where you can slip beneath Mammy's skirts and eat a delicious lunch with a sweet slice of pie for dessert.

"Affectionately" called "Black Mammy's" by locals, the restaurant is a Dixie ode to the Old South, where Confederate flags waved gently in the magnolia-scented breeze and the blood of enslaved Africans dampened the earth.

From miles around, the White people come. Ignorant -- or dismissive -- of the subjugation and violence against Black female bodies that "Mammy" represents, they eagerly live out Gone With the Wind fantasies and giggle at the sight of the 30-foot tall Mammy standing silent, subservient and vulnerable to those who would part her skirt and rape her memory. To them, Mammy is delightful. She is mint juleps and cotton, antebellum homes and White supremacy. She is a reminder that once upon a time, White people owned other human beings and they liked it. Even more so, they would like it today.

Growing up as a little girl, I would see Mammy, with her silhouette seeming to stretch up to the blue sky, as an oddity, a throwback that aligned with the romanticization of slave trading and the Civil War. As I got older, though, the fury would curl in my belly at the blatant disregard of the Black experience in the Deep South, the dismissal of the brutalization that Black women faced -- and still do -- and the bold audacity to profit from generations of our pain. Through the years, Mammy's owners would lighten her skin, as if the racism on display would somehow be mitigated by colorism.

PSA: It's not.

Each time someone sits down inside Mammy's skirt to dine, in my mind, they are gorging on the souls of Black folks, bloated with down home racism and chocolate pie.

It is through the lens of my experience with Mammy's that I first laid eyes on images of Kara Walker's exquisite A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby in the Domino Sugar Factory in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. Rarely has art simultaneously triggered so many emotions within me: pain, anger, sadness, fear, empathy, protectiveness, pride, joy, love.

It is haunting, powerful, captivating.

Her body is positioned like the Sphinx, with the full breasts, round buttocks, thick lips and proud nose of a Black woman. Her vulva is exposed as if daring White patrons to look, touch and openly gawk at that which their ancestors took by force in slave quarters and parlors from Mississippi to Georgia.

Yet, she is much more than that. She is telling stories with her eyes. Stories of pain, yes, but also stories of survival, strength and grace. And as I studied the images with my heart in my throat, I thought about Mammy. I thought about the intense irony of Sugar Baby being naked, sweet, tempting and untouchable, while Mammy stands fully clothed and plundered on a daily basis, her value reduced to the price of a lunch special.

These two depictions of Black women, "Mammy" and Sugar Baby, both reflect the lived experiences of so many of us in this country. We are told that our bodies are both hypersexual and asexual. We are punished by society for our contradictions, cast as bad mothers and good Jezebels. We are physically, emotionally and spiritually assaulted and no amount of "respectability" can save us.

We have stretch marks on our souls from birthing a nation that has heaped so many atrocities upon us that it can't even look us in the eye.

Yet, here we stand. Unbowed.

And as I thought about these things, I allowed myself to cry for the Black women whose stories history books have tried to erase, replaced by caricatures of Black womanhood intended to dehumanize us and mute our screams across the pages. I squeezed my eyes tight as the genetic memory of blistering lashes and rapes assaulted my psyche. I imagined my sons being snatched from my arms and sold so that I could focus on raising a White woman's children.

This is the shared pain of Black women. These are the burdens we shoulder as we fight misogynist Black men who perpetuate rape culture, perverted White men with open fetishes and hidden agendas and hypocritical White feminists who shout "sister" but whisper "whore."

All the way in Brooklyn, New York, Natchez, Mississippi's "Black Mammy" stretches out in the Domino Sugar Factory, reborn as The Marvelous Sugar Baby. Her tray is put away. Her skirt is tossed to the side. Her smile is gone. The facade is no more.

Her stern, knowing expression reminds me that our liberation from White supremacy and Black misogyny will not come gift-wrapped and sprinkled with sugar. If it is to be, and it must be, it will be painstakingly carved, inch by bruised inch, with our bare hands.

Kirsten West Savali is a Contributing Editor for and feature writer for Clutch Magazine, where a version of this essay originally appeared.