“My Ol’ Black Mammy”

Childhood Maids in Brazilian Modernist Memoirs
  • Sônia Roncador


The photograph of a black wet nurse and her white foster son, dated 1870, was selected by Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, one of the organizers of História da vida privada no Brasil [History of Private Life in Brazil], to grace the cover of the second volume of the series. The image gives special emphasis to the ambivalent relationship between the nursemaid and her “white son,” one of love and power (property) denoted by the touch of the child’s two little hands on the nurse’s right arm and shoulder.1 Although not entirely denying that the bodily contact in this old photo could have simply been the result of the photographer’s commands or the child’s exhaustion, Alencastro instead prefers to interpret it as the consequence of the parents’ intent to legitimize the “union” between the black wet nurse and the white boy through a family portrait, a “paradoxical albeit permitted union… founded on actual love and prior violence” (“Epílogo” 440).2 However, as revealed in several late nineteenth-century archived photographs of old aristocratic family and family-like members, wet nurses slowly disappeared from family albums, or were merely relegated to “the photographs as remnants: a hand, a wrist, until they were entirely banned from the images” (Deiab, “Memória” 40). Such piecemeal exclusion of the institutionalized wet nurse from symbolic loci of affection reveals that she became a source of apprehension and fear, especially taking into account demeaning representations of black nurses as agents of moral and physical contamination by hygienist campaigns in favor of “natural” breastfeeding, as well as by eugenic theories and politics following the abolition of slavery.


Black Woman White Child Foster Child White Mother Domestic Servant 
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  1. 1.
    This photograph of wet nurse Monica, or Mammy Quinha, and her white son, Augusto Gomes Leal, was taken by an established photographer, João Ferreira Villela, in Recife, Pernambuco, and is now available for consultation at the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco de Pesquisas Sociais (Recife). For more on this image, see Luzilá Gonçalves Ferreira’s “Um capítulo à parte: As amas de leite escravas,” in Suaves Amazonas: Mulheres e abolição da escravatura no Nordeste, ed. Luzilá Gonçalves Ferreira et al. (Recife: Editora Universitária da UFPE, 1999), 171–201. For more on the Brazilian iconography of slaves, consultGoogle Scholar
  2. Rafaela de Andrade Deiab’s “A memória afetiva da escravidão,” Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional 1.4 (October 2005): 36–40, as well as her MA thesis, “A mãe preta na literatura brasileira: A ambiguidade como construção social (1880–1950)” (University of São Paulo, Brazil, 2006). Additionally, seeGoogle Scholar
  3. Sandra Koutsoukos’s study of iconographic representations of slave wet nurses in Negros no estúdio do fotógrafo: Brasil, segunda metade do século XIX (Campinas: Editora da UNICAMP, 2010) and Marco Antonio Stancik’s “A ama-de-leite e o bebê: Reflexões em torno do apagamento de uma face,” História 28.2 (2009): 659–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    See also Margarita Zegarra, “La construcción de la madre y de la familia sentimental: Una vision del tema a través del Mercurio Peruano,” Histórica 25.1 (2001): 161–207; andGoogle Scholar
  5. Lucia Provencio Garrigós, “La trampa discursiva del elogio a la maternidade cubana del siglo XIX,” Americanía 1 (January 2011): 42–73. According to Rima Apple, the ideology of hygienic maternity was also an important factor to discourage US mothers from hiring the services of a black wet nurse (Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding, 1890–1950 [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987], 97).Google Scholar
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    For a different perspective regarding the relation between breastfeeding and sexuality, see Gilza Sandre-Pereira’s “Amamentação e sexualidade,” Estudos Feministas 11.2 (July–December, 2003): 467–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 9.
    Other plantation memoirs by nonliterary authors also consecrated the mammy stereotype, such as Memórias de um Cavalcanti (reviewed in Gilberto Freyre’s O velho Felix e suas “Memórias de um Cavalcanti” [Rio de Janeiro: J. Olympio, 1959]); Andrea Gondin Fernandes’s Velhos engenhos de minha terra (Recife: Ed. ASA Pernambuco, 1986), as well asGoogle Scholar
  8. Eurydice Amorim Moraes’s Roteiro do Barão Rodrigues Mendes (Recife: Federal University of Pernambuco Press, 1967) (both reviewed inGoogle Scholar
  9. Luzilá Gonçalves Ferreira’s “Um capítulo à parte: As amas de leite escravas,” in Suaves Amazonas: Mulheres e abolição da escravatura no Nordeste, ed. Luzilá Gonçalves Ferreira et al. [Recife: Editora Universitária da UFPE, 1999], 171–201). For information on the mammy figure in Hispanic Caribbean modernist memoirs, see Jerome Branche’s analysis of Puerto Rican Luis Palés Matos’s unfinished “Litoral: Reseña de una vida inutil” (in the critic’s above-mentioned chapter “Negrism, Modernism, and a Palesian Paradox,” in Colonialism and Race in Luso-Hispanic Literature [Columbia; London: University of Missouri Press, 2006], 162–211). Regarding US Southern plantation memoirs and the repertoire of mammies therein narrated, see above-mentioned Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’s “Southern Monuments, Southern Memory, and the Subversive Mammy” (Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory) and Darlene O’Dell’s Sites of Southern Memory: The Autobiographies of Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, Lillian Smith, and Pauli Murray.Google Scholar
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    The Brazilian soap opera, Direito de Nascer, was produced during the same period (1964), adapted from the melodrama by Cuban writer Félix Caignet, who also included in his plot an incarnation of the mammy, Mamãe Dolores, played by Isaura Bruno. For more about the image of Afro-descendants in the history of Brazilian soap operas, see Joel Zito Araújo’s A negação do Brasil: O negro na telenovela brasileira (São Paulo: Editora SENAC, 2000).Google Scholar
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    For more on coverage of the monument to the mammy by the black press, see above-mentioned Micol Seigel’s “Black Mothers”; also consult Maria Cláudia Cardoso Ferreira’s “Representando as relações raciais: As trajetórias dos militantes Veiga dos Santos e Correia Leite,” in Proceedings to the XXIII National Symposium of History: War and Peace (Universidade Estadual de Londrina, July 17–22, 2005). As proven by the press of the 1920s and 1930s, this campaign generated the support as well as the rejection of the population; an interesting example of opposition to the campaign is avant-garde writerGoogle Scholar
  12. Antônio de Alcântara Machado’s chronicle, “Concurso de lactantes,” Revista de Antropofagia 1.7 (November 1928): 1.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    To learn more about the origins of Brazilian folklore studies in the late nineteenth century, see Renato Ortiz’s Românticos e folcloristas: Cultura (São Paulo: Olho d’água, 1992).Google Scholar
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    In the same article, Lajolo stresses, in her analysis of Monteiro Lobato’s Histórias de Tia Nastácia (1937), the signs of inequality (inferiority) of the black Auntie Nastácia’s tales, in contrast to the prestigious European oral stories, narrated by her employer Dona Benta. Lojolo’s intention, then, is to reveal the mechanisms of control and legitimization present not only in the sphere of (written) high literature but also in oral tradition—mechanisms obfuscated by Freyre’s discourse (and, before him, Romero’s) about the construction of Brazilian folklore. In addition to creating a benevolent image of the aristocracy, Freyre’s inclusive narrative about the construction of Brazilian folklore (inclusion of distinct traditions) constitutes a manner of engaging with the “other” without, however, acknowledging his/her singularity or difference (a difference that is overcome, or diluted, in the process of mestiçagem).Google Scholar
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    Jorge Amado, “Homenagem a José Lins do Rego, o menino de engenho,” in José Lins do Rego, ed. Eduardo Coutinho and Ângela Bezerra de Castro, Vol. 7 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira; João Pessoa: Edições Funesc, Espaço Cultural da Paraíba, 1991), 68–69.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    Conversely, as argued by Jean Franco in her aforementioned article, “What’s in a Name?,” “as Gramsci has shown, hegemony is a constant process of transaction and struggle” (177). In this sense, Hollywood movies “may represent attempts at control but they also have to meet the real desires and needs of people. Above all, they have to entertain.” To better understand Hollywood’s impact on Latin American intellectuals, in their first decades of penetration, or “advances,” in the region, see Jason Borge’s Avances de Hollywood: Crítica cinematográfica en Latinoamérica, 1915–1945 (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 2005).Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    To better understand the construction by both authors of this narrative of “rare and profound friendship” between Lins do Rego and Freyre, see the fine essay by César Braga-Pinto, “José Lins do Rego: Sujeito aos ventos de Gilberto Freyre,” Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 30.59 (2004): 183–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 25.
    For more on the images and conditions of the wet nurse’s life at the end of the nineteenth century, see Sonia M. Giacomini’s “Ser escrava no Brasil,” Estudos Afro-Asiáticos 15 (1988): 145–70;Google Scholar
  19. Sônia M. Giacomini and Elizabeth K. C. de Magalhães’s “A escrava ama-de-leite: Anjo ou demônio?” in Mulher, mulheres, ed. Carmen Barroso and Albertina Oliveira Costa (São Paulo: Fundação Carlos Chagas, 1983), 73–88;Google Scholar
  20. Rafaela de Andrade Deiab’s “A memória afetiva da escravidão,” Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional 1.4 (October of 2005): 36–40; and, finally, Maria Elizabeth Ribeiro Carneiro’s “Procuram-se amas-de-leite na historiografia da escravidão: Da ‘suavidade do leite preto’ ao ‘fardo’ dos homens brancos,” Em Tempo de Histórias 5.5 (2001): n.p.Google Scholar
  21. 28.
    João Baptista A. Imbert, Guia medico das mães de familia, ou a infancia considerada na sua hygiene, suas molestias e tratamentos (Rio de Janeiro: Typ. Franceza, 1843).Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    It is worth remembering that different scholars have located examples of such narratives of seduction between the nurse and her foster son in Freud’s personal writings—self-analytical sketches like some of his letters to friend Wilhelm Fliess (between May and October, 1897). Considering that Freud, as revealed by these letters, used his own experience as a basis for forging his Oedipus Complex theory, and that as a child he himself was raised by a nanny, these scholars identified a silence, or negligence, in the way that mainstream psychoanalytic discourse addressed the nurse’s role in the Freudian discovery of the child’s sexual desire by the mother (either a biological mother or a foster one). To better comprehend the impact of the nineteenth-century culture of double maternity on Freud’s theories of seduction, see Mariza Corrêa’s “Freud’s Nanny and Other Nannies,” Cadernos Pagu 1.29 (July–December 2007): 61–90.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    About the social division of domestic work in Victorian society, see Leonore Davidoff’s “Class and Gender in Victorian England,” in Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995). About the division of housework chores in nineteenth-century Brazil, see my discussion in Chapter One of this book.Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    Thomas Colchie and Mark Strand, eds., Travelling in the Family: Selected Poems/Carlos Drummond de Andrade, trans. Thomas Colchie, Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gregory Rabassa (New York: Random House, 1986), 34.Google Scholar
  25. 36.
    As Hermano Vianna argues, in O mistério do samba (Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor & Editora UFRJ, 1995), “one of the greatest merits in Lilia Schwarcz’s thesis,” in her study about racial discourse in Brazil, was to show how the Brazilian intellectual class translated European theories (in no way optimistic with regard to miscegenation) in such a manner to satisfy nationalist visions for defining the national character, as well as the project for national modernization. According to Schwarcz, “our challenge in understanding the circulation of European race theories in Brazil, therefore, comes not from seeking naïve national applications of the foreign racial model as a way to disqualify it. More interesting for our purposes would be to analyze the originality of Brazilian racial thought, which in the interest of nationalizing European theory, updated some parts while ignoring others that were problematic to the construction of a racial argument in this country” (O espetáculo das raças: Cientistas, instituições e questão racial no Brasil, 1870–1930 [São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1993], 19).Google Scholar
  26. 39.
    About exclusion, in the very construction of the mulatto woman myth, of the possibility for (her) social ascension (different, in this sense, from that of the mulatto male), see the above-mentioned article by Mariza Corrêa, “Sobre a invenção da mulata,” Cadernos Pagu 6–7 (1996): 35–50.Google Scholar
  27. 40.
    One should bear in mind the re-semantizations that the terms “mãe-preta” and “mulata” have undergone in contemporary Afro-Brazilian literature. For more on the criticism as well as the expansion of the repertoire of black icons in Afro-Brazilian culture, see special issue “Afro-Brazilian Literature: A Special Issue,” Callaloo 18.4 (Autumn 1995), as well as Eduardo de Assis Duarte and Maria Nazareth Soares Fonseca, eds. Literatura e Afro-descendência no Brasil: Antologia crítica (4 Vols. Belo Horizonte: Ed. UFMG, 2011).Google Scholar
  28. 41.
    See Howard Winant’s “Rethinking Race in Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 24.1 (February 1992): 173–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Sônia Roncador 2014

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