Four years ago, Texas A&M's student newspaper published a bigoted cartoon of a large black woman in hair curlers with exaggerated facial features, wearing a calico house dress and apron, clutching a spatula in one hand, and wagging a pointed finger with the other, to depict a modern-day mother chastising her son for his miserable academic performance and poor report card. The only thing missing was her bandana.
The illustration triggered complaints on campus, and the editorial adviser for The Battalion, as expected, apologized. For the most part, though, the story came and went with little controversy a distressing testimony to the indefatigable association between stereotypes of African-American women as cooks and mothers.
With all of the fury over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, I could not help comparing the outrage felt by some Muslims with the shame, anger, and frustration I feel as a black woman, mother, and cook when I think about being insensitively associated after all these years with the imagery of the "toothy-grinnned-and-calico-swathed plump face" belonging to the world's most well-recognized black cook: Aunt Jemima. Despite affirming examples of real, professionally empowered, beautiful and slim black women, it is still too easy to associate African-American matriarchs and cooks with the jarring portrait of the South's "old black Mammy."
So, it should come as no surprise that an enigmatic portrait of an unknown Austin mammy named Mandy has beguiled unsuspecting visitors to the Austin History Center since the Nagle family donated it to the city's archives back in 1988. Her image represents a paradox: an object of both antipathy and obsession. Much of what is known about her reflects more about the way society viewed her than the way she really was.
If you know a woman like Mandy, she is as an inspirational true-life heroine whose culinary expressiveness is like a gift she bestows upon the people she loves. Mention of her name inspires thoughts like proud, generous, loving, tenderhearted, talented, exceptional cook. Delicious memories of her kitchen appear in Mandy's piercing reflection.
Not everyone comprehends this powerful love language, however. If you grew up outside the counsel of a competent cook who dispensed firsthand kitchen wisdom the way she apportioned hunks of ham to her children from a simmering pot of beans, your view of Mandy's reflection might be like that of the A&M cartoonist: tarnished and obfuscated by a concept that scholars call "Mammyism." Solving the mystery of who she really was, how she lived and worked, and how she showed her love is of little consequence.
The stereotyped images contradict my personal and professional experience of countless gifted and generous women who did far more toward the creation of Southern cuisine than simply kill the chickens and stir the pots, but American history has been cruel to them. The fact that the offense was so quickly forgotten reminds me that we will not emancipate the degrading and superficial image of the Aunt Jemima/Mammy figure so that future generations can embrace her as the loving matriarch who cooked our meals from scratch, sewed our clothes, salved our wounds, nurtured our spirits, and generally elevated our character, until we decode her identity.
This is not a sentimentalist's journey. When Mammy gets her makeover, she takes off the head rag of slavery and destroys the Jemima myth and elevates our respect for the unsung heroes of the kitchen like Mandy. It is a worthy process, recalled in an African proverb, which says that until lions have historians, hunters will be heroes.
The search for Mandy, identified in the caption accompanying her visage as "Eula Amelia (Caldwell) Nagle's Mammy," began in a folder of Nagle family photographs and two shallow gray file boxes, each overflowing with the remnants of the Joseph A. Nagle and John Caldwell family estates. Since Eula Amelia wasn't born until 1865, the year slavery officially ended in Texas, I turned my attention away from the Nagle files to look for clues about Mandy among the Caldwell's female slaves.
We know from slave narratives that slave experiences were "variegated," depending upon the location and size of the plantation, the nature of its crops, the number of slaves a planter owned, and the family's religious affiliation. Susan, a former Louisiana slave, told Works Progress Administration agents in 1936 that she "did all the work" for her family of 10 before emancipation, including carrying her own wood and hauling water from a nearby river before she prepared a meal. Conversely, "Aunt" Charity described her comfortable role in a wealthy Alabama planter's dining room this way:
"I kin remember de days when I was one of de house servants. Dere was six of us in de ole Massa's house me, Sarai [cq], Lou, Hester, Jerry, and Joe ... My job was lookin' atter de corner table whar nothin' but de desserts set," she said.
It took several days, but there, tucked insignificantly amid property deeds, household ledgers and address books, society column clippings, birth and death announcements, probate records, military discharge papers, and an entire file of recipes, was a family genealogy that detailed the arrival of John Caldwell, his young family, and five slaves, including a female named Melinda Pryor, in Texas in 1833.
Historians tell us that some women as young as 18 served as plantation mammy, so it is certainly possible that 15-year-old Melinda was Mandy. At that age, she would have performed light household duties, cared for the children, taught them etiquette and manners, and, on occasion, cooked. As her years advanced and her wisdom bloomed, her household station advanced to the respected position of mammy or plantation cook, and she became known by a pet- or nickname, such as "Mammy Lou" or "Aunt Dinah," and, yes, even Mandy. Tracing the connection between Mandy and Pryor would be simple if either name appeared in household diaries and letters written by her mistress. Unfortunately, none of these were among the Caldwell farm records.
A study of the U.S. Census for the early days of the Republic turned up a rich heritage for the Caldwells, but Mandy (and/or Pryor) was imperceptible in the report. Slave schedules did not yet exist, so men and women were cataloged with a farmer's belongings, like so many acres of cotton or heads of cattle. Much more is discerned from the same record about John Caldwell:
He was born in Frankfort, Ky.; studied law in Nashville, Tenn.; and practiced in Tuscumbia, Ala., where he married Lucinda Whey Haynie. He had a law office in New Orleans before settling on the rugged Texas frontier known as Mina (before it became Bastrop). He represented Bastrop County in the House of the third, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth congresses of the Republic of Texas; was a member of the Senate of the Ninth Congress; and was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. There is not another mention of Melinda Pryor in Col. Caldwell's family papers, nor is she identified in the government's 1840 inventory of his property: 12 slaves, 35 cattle.
By 1860, census records had improved, and "the colonel," as he was known, was a wealthy, prosperous member of the landed gentry of Bastrop and the father of nine. That year, his 27-year-old son, John Adam Caldwell, a slaveholding farmer; and his wife, Mildred (Pratt Washington) Caldwell, listed six slaves on the population schedule for Travis County. Still, there was no proof that Melinda Pryor or Mandy lived in the households of either of the Caldwell men.
Ironically, both Caldwell men died in 1870, leaving explicit financial histories and carefully worded wills that ensured smooth transfer of their wealth, but little else that hints at the master's relationship with his human chattel.
Rowe Caldwell Jr., who still lives on the family homestead in Garfield and is John Caldwell's great-great-grandnephew, softened the news that slave names were not recorded in any of the family's written narratives in his possession by revealing a detail from Caldwell oral history: "The family always treated the slaves real good," he said.
If Mandy were treated well, like a member of the household, she would have slept on a straw pallet near the Caldwell children to respond quickly to their needs in the middle of the night. If not, she was kept in a slave cabin near the kitchen, a coveted location for cooks, according to slave scholars. Either way, she awoke at 3am to gather wood and put on the coffee. She fed the field slaves before dawn, and then served the family an elaborate breakfast. She returned to the kitchen to prepare buckets of beans and cornmeal for midday slave supper.
It doesn't appear that Mandy was ever sold for bad behavior. There are just three slave sales receipts in the Caldwell files, and Mandy is not one of them. In fact, if Melinda Pryor worshipped at all with the Caldwell family during slavery or in freedom, the details of her religious experience are a secret. No manumission or emancipation documents related to her release, and no marriage or baptism records were filed in church periodicals.
During corn-husking time, Mandy might have been one of the "lucky" slaves sent to neighboring farms to earn a little money in her off time. Unfortunately, if she was on loan to the Pratt Washingtons, Caldwell in-laws, they didn't keep track of her either. This large slaveholding family kept comprehensive logs of the names and occupations of their slaves, including several cooks. Effie Brown Washington also composed a drawn-out narrative about the family's expedition to Travis County and the patriarch's favorite saddle horse, Steamboat. And, yet, Pryor's whereabouts in Travis County during the Civil War years are a mystery.
Both Brown Washington and a slave woman named Rosina Hoard recalled a cook on the Pratt Washington place whose name was Aunt Alice. Hoard vividly described Aunt Alice's work, giving WPA interviewers a glimpse of what life would have been like for Melinda Pryor had she lived there.
"Each chile have he own weed tray," Hoard said. "Dere was old Aunt Alice and she done all de cookin' for de chillen in de depot. Dat what dey calls de place all de chillen stays 'till dere mammies come home from de field. Aunt Alice have de big pot to cook in, out in de yard. Some days we had beans and some day peas. She put great hunks of salt bacon in de pot, and bake plenty cornbread, and give us plenty milk."
By the time Melinda Pryor finally emerges in the 1880 Federal Census, Eula Amelia was 12 years old, and her mother, Mildred (Pratt Washington) Caldwell, had remarried a family friend, Winter Goodloe. The same year, Orlando Caldwell, John Adam's brother, registered a 22-year-old servant, Manda Sampson, in his household, as did another brother, W. H. Caldwell, who listed a 22-year-old black servant, Lizzie Coleman, in the record.
In fact, almost all black women responding to the government inquiry that year recorded the same jobs in freedom they had held during slavery, except for Pryor, who did not join the ranks of independent black female workers known as washer women, domestics, servants, and cooks. Despite the subservient image of the selfless mammy cleaving to her white family following freedom, Pryor, now a 61-year-old Alabama native, shared a home with her husband Frederick and their seven children in Travis County. Rowe Caldwell was unsure whether Frederick lived among the other "half-hands" (known as sharecroppers) on the Caldwell family's vast estate. Surprisingly, like most white women that year, Melinda selected housekeeper not servant as her occupation. She could neither read nor write.
Pryor certainly could have stayed on as young Eula Amelia's mammy the woman known only to family and friends as Mandy in those early post-emancipation years but she obviously left her young charges as they entered adolescence to care for her own children in independence. The Goodloe home was servantless in 1880.
That might explain why neither Mandy nor anyone bearing the initials "M.P." is interred with the Caldwell clan at Oakwood Cemetery, a tradition reserved for a very special class of servant. Although a woman of this stature would have spent five or six decades suckling her master's children, consoling his isolated and lonely wife, and working for the comfort of his family from sunup to sundown, apparently, she still had not earned the right to a proper burial in his family grounds. Sadly, in the case of Melinda Pryor and Mandy, a carefully posed, nameless portrait stands as the only trace of life in this household at all.
Today, the only evidence that either woman ever existed rests in her possible association with the other, making it boldly optimistic for me to claim they are one and the same. However, with additional study of Caldwell family history and a deeper exploration of Pryor's life, I might someday bring equilibrium to this off-center story and unchain the image of the black cook. Then, the only difference between distorted illustrations and real black cooks won't simply be that the head cloth has disappeared.
Copyright © 2018 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.