The Faithful Slave

How Alex Tizon’s essay echoes a trope with deep roots in American history

A 19th-century illustration of a black "mammie" with a white child
E.W. Kemble / New York Public Library

This article is part of a series of responses to Alex Tizon’s Atlantic article “My Family’s Slave.” The full series can be found here. For another historical perspective, please see Vicente Rafael’s essay on understanding Lola’s story in the context of slavery in the Philippines.

In his painful and powerful essay “My Family’s Slave,” Alex Tizon writes that, as a child, his primary point of reference for the place Eudocia Tomas Pulido, or “Lola,” occupied in his family’s life was “in slave characters on TV and in the movies.” That Tizon saw echoes of “Lola” in the character of Pompey, a subservient, scraping, black manchild to John Wayne’s rugged frontiersman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, is telling. It points to the ways in which stereotypical depictions of black people and popular narratives of slavery and emancipation provide a very American context for Tizon’s story of immigration and exploitation.

Tizon, for his part, seems reluctant to fully make the connection. And some readers from the Philippines have pointed out that their country has a distinctive history of slavery with marked differences from chattel slavery in the antebellum United States, while others note the more pertinent context of modern human trafficking. Still, Tizon’s own essay demands the comparison to American slavery and its legacies. His story joins a tradition that began with what’s known as “the faithful slave narrative,” morphed into the dominant “mammy” ideal by the later 19th century, and has persisted, to the present day, through mainstream popular culture and in stories of black caregivers whose deep love for the white children they cared for transcended the cruelty and coercions of their circumstances. I examine this tradition and its wide cultural and political impacts in my 2007 book, Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America.

In the decades before the Civil War, southern slave owners responded to abolitionists and to published accounts of the horrors of slavery by formerly enslaved men and women with stories of black fidelity and love that described joyful servitude, childlike dependence, and refusals of offered freedom. The faithful-slave trope was the ultimate example of southern paternalism that described the master-slave relationship as essentially familial, existing outside of market forces. Advocates proclaimed slavery to be morally superior to free labor, arguing that it was more truly humane, based on a lifetime of mutual care and obligation as well as natural racial hierarchies. By this logic, some were born to be slaves while others were born with the responsibility to manage, guide, and care for them. This was often summed up in the phrase that certain slaves (and later free domestic workers) were “like one of the family.” The word “like,” of course, glosses over American slavery’s endemic sexual exploitation and family destruction, as well as the fact that many enslaved people were their owners’ family.

With the legal end of U.S. slavery, the faithful-slave narrative grew into a national one, trafficking in nostalgia for an imagined past of benevolent race relations and honorable white supremacy. Within this national pantheon of faithful slaves, the figure of the “mammy” became and remains most prominent. Depicted as a surrogate mother and wonderful cook, the caricature—with her wide grin, soothing croon, and enormous size—became iconic. Isolated from other black people within the white household, “Mammy” was fierce in her love for her white family; she was a disciplinarian, endearing in her gruffness and lack of refinement, but decidedly asexual and never an object of carnal desire. Enshrined in American culture with Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind and its blockbuster 1939 film adaptation, the “mammy” has prevailed as a fictional representation of contentment with servitude. She has sustained a long history of white desires to believe that slavery, white supremacy, segregation, and racial violence were in some senses sanctioned by black people, and that in the midst of it all, black women loved the white children they took care of—more than their own families, more than their own communities, and more than themselves.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s presented new challenges to these toxic popular fictions and generated a new version of the story. Confronted with black resistance, the stark realities of structural racism and economic exploitation, and their own complicity—even if they were only children at the time—many white southerners sought to explain the complexities of their past relationships with black domestic workers and apologize for their families’ roles in profiting from and perpetuating inequality. Inevitably, they turned to “Mammy’s” warm embrace and asserted her abiding love to be evidence of their own growth, learned empathy, and commitment to future equality. Her faithfulness showed that white people could change, while “Mammy” stayed locked in her place.

This was most recently seen in Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling 2009 novel The Help and its 2011 film adaptation. The central white character in that story is a young woman named Skeeter in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 coming into her own as a writer, fighting her family and the expectations of the dominant gender order, and discovering her sympathies with Civil Rights activism, all through her love for and painful loss of the black domestic worker who “raised” her. The path to her own freedom and journalistic success is a book within the book, entitled “The Help,” that exposes the working conditions and true perspectives of black maids in Jackson.

But in The Help, the story we get, the feelings revealed, are Skeeter’s and Kathryn Stockett’s—not those of the domestic workers on whose behalf both white women claim to speak. The novel includes an author’s essay at the end called, “Too Little, Too Late: Kathryn Stockett in her Own Words,” as if the entire book weren’t already her own words. In it, she describes her continued love for Demetrie McLorn, a black woman employed by Stockett’s grandparents who cared for her and her older siblings in the aftermath of their parents’ divorce in the 1970s. The short remembrance and apology concludes:

I’m pretty sure that I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine. I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. That is why I wrote this book.

It is notable that Tizon’s widow has sought to elaborate on his family’s relationship with “Lola” by likening it to those depicted in The Help.

With its hot, radiating shame, confessional mode, and ultimate insistence on “Lola’s” love for him and his for her, “My Family’s Slave” puts Alex Tizon in the crowded company of American writers who have claimed that intimacy and understanding within hierarchies of domestic labor can undermine deep structures of oppression. It pulls on the same emotional registers and myopic self-focus as The Help. Even as Tizon condemns the coercion “Lola” endured, he looks for signs of her affection in her cooking: “I could tell by what she served whether she was merely feeding us or saying she loved us.” Tizon, like Stockett, is desperate to understand the care he got as unconditional love, as rising above and separate from coercion. But in this genre, that rising above always signals the growth and goodness of the narrator. The essay, then, is not “Lola’s” story, but Alex Tizon’s reflected through her.

This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of the faithful “mammy” figure’s endurance. It distorts the narrative, just as it warps individual relationships and emotions, even in attempts like Tizon’s to speak truth, expose family crimes, accept responsibility, and reckon with past and present abuses.