My Visit to the Road to Tara Museum
The title is stenciled in black on the all-white wall of the Hattie McDaniel exhibition at the Road to Tara Museum: “Mammy—Beloved Myth of the Old South.” The scene it refers to is squeezed between the history of the Battle of Jonesboro and a scale once used to weigh picked cotton. It’s so small I almost missed it on my tour of the museum, where dolls created by fans of Gone with the Wind are displayed much more prominently.
Behind the exhibition glass is a biography of the famed actress, dolls modeled after her character in Gone with the Wind, still scenes from the film, statues, and other paraphernalia. There are details about the first African American to win an Academy Award, and a mannequin adorned in the costume Hattie wore as Mammy. The costume is a black nineteenth-century dress with a long white apron and a white hair rag. I thought it was homely and unbecoming to imagine her this way, a woman who transformed the entertainment industry by paving the way for today’s black entertainers. How strange it must’ve been for her to play a role that black women lived every day for little to no pay. How telling of the times that Hattie’s performance would garner such accolades.
From Hattie’s display, I could easily see the costume gallery showcasing reproductions of some of the most famous costumes from the film. Beautiful, colorful gowns with corseted waists, hoop skirts, and extensive details, set against backdrops from their respective scenes in the movie. When I was in middle school, I had an older friend who wanted to have a Gone with the Wind–themed wedding. And eventually she did. Her venue was a plantation in Tennessee, her caterer served Southern fried chicken and mint juleps, and she and her bridesmaids carried cotton in their bouquets. When she went dress shopping, she asked the consultants for a “Scarlett O’Hara” ball gown, corset and hoop skirt included. My friend’s wedding was stunning, but I felt wrong and disrespectful being at a wedding where a black woman was the “Scarlett O’Hara” bride.
I wonder if Hattie McDaniel admired Vivien Leigh for being able to wear beautiful gowns. I wonder how she felt seeing the other actresses in sophisticated dresses—actresses on the same movie set!—while hers showed, along with her skin, that she was lesser than. What did black women like her who were not famous actresses think?
In eighth grade, I received a creative assignment to document someone’s life in the Civil War. I created my own character named Fawn, a half-black, half-Native American sixteen-year-old girl who was working as a Union spy to save her captured fiancé from the Confederacy. She told her story through a journal, and I imagined she wore gowns just like Scarlett’s even as she crawled through tunnels and rode horses to save her love. Before I knew much about history and reality, I thought anything was possible through writing, including black women wearing and doing anything they wanted. I romanticized and idealized everything back then; now, I consider that sort of writing to be erasure, devaluing the suffering of so many.
There is a wall plaque at the center of the museum detailing the life of Margaret Mitchell and her inspiration for Gone with the Wind:
“I grew up at a time when children were seen and not heard. I had to hear a lot about the Civil War on Sunday afternoon when I was dragged hither and yon to call on elderly relatives and friends of the family who had fought in the war or lived behind the lines… I heard about fighting and wounds and the primitive way they were treated, how ladies nursed in the hospitals, the way gangrene smelled, what substitutes were used for drugs and food and clothing when the blockade got too tight for these necessities to be brought in. I heard about the burning and looting of Atlanta… I heard everything in the world except that the Confederates lost the war. When I was ten years old, it was violent shock to learn that General Lee had been licked.”
Romanticism and ignorance often walk hand-in-hand. Reading this quote from Margaret reminded me of my own submersion into my stories. Growing up, I turned TV shows, books, and video games to see myself reflected in entertainment. I was always hunting for a black female character, whether she was the lead or supporting a white lead. When I started writing my own stories, I ignored the facts in favor of the fiction and created characters without acknowledging history, society, or the rules and consequences of both. In doing so, I restricted my stories from having power and impact. It was like never getting to the end of a book.
At the end of my tour of the museum, I asked the gift shop manager if she had any Hattie McDaniel keepsakes.
“Well, we don’t have much.,” she said. “We have her biography, but that’s about it. The rest is just her playing Mammy. We have a cute magnet with her and Miss Scarlett from the cinching scene.”
It’s the only magnet with Hattie, and it reads, “You can’t show your bosom before 3:00 pm.”
I ended up buying the magnet, along with Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel by Carlton Jackson, and Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind by Donald McCaig. I wanted to honor Hattie McDaniel. And maybe I also wanted to support the quaint museum next to a railroad in the middle of Jonesboro. I’m not sure. The “Mammy” archetype bothers me, especially since it is still perpetuated, but that’s not Hattie’s fault. Hattie didn’t ask to portray a racial stereotype, and she shouldn’t be remembered that way. She’s not a beloved Old Southern myth; she’s an underrated legend of the New South, and I think she said it best: “If it ain’t fittin’, it just ain’t fittin’.”