Collecting Our Uncomfortable Past  

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with my work that I am an avid collector of all things connected to popular culture. My home is filled from top to bottom with remnants of American history over the past 100 years.

But it might be surprising to learn that along with my Little Dot Comic Books, WWII Ration Coupons, Life Magazines, and racy vintage pin-ups are vestiges of America’s painful history.

Mammy iconography once embellished my kitchen.

Arranged on shelves and hung on walls, smiling black faces wearing checkered head kerchiefs stared out at me in all sorts of configurations from teapots and cookie jars to salt and pepper shakers. They were joined by jolly butlers and servile chefs.

I used to collect Black Memorabilia.

At one time Barbie and Ken shared display space with Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose. Black tchotchkes as my mother would call them are also referred to as African American Collectibles or Black Americana.

They are also called contemptible collectibles. Unlike saccharine Hummel figurines, these tchotchkes had a darker past.

Like ghosts of Jim Crow past, they were a sober reminder how insidious racism was in our country. And still is. Though the objects are now discarded, packed away in boxes, their history should not be forgotten.

In the Begining…

I began amassing kitschy vintage collectibles in earnest in my early twenties.

Weekends were spent scouring second-hand shops, tag sales, and flea markets, casting a wide net for some hidden gems I didn’t know I needed. These left-over remnants of people’s lives were largely sentimental, sometimes functional but almost all beloved.

By the early 1980’s I began noticing that interspersed among the Depression glass, Bakelite jewelry and McCoy Pottery were race-themed items.

Seeing the plethora of black novelties casually displayed on tables and tucked in glass cabinets was disconcerting.

What was it about Americans as a consumer culture to think it necessary to produce tens of thousands of racist images across virtually every inconceivable form of pop culture? Racism came in the form of ceramic ashtrays and glass figurines, tin signs and sheet music, children’s toys, and a whole lot of kitchenware.  Kitchens were ground zero for black collectibles

Aunt Jemima in da House

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose Salt and Pepper Shaker 1940s

Once upon a time, the American housewife could serve up a heaping helping of racism right in her own home with all the black-themed home décor available to her.

Beginning in the 1930’s it was Aunt Jemima who cornered the market in kitchen kitsch, swamping the marketplace in her likeness. More than a pancake mix she became a commodity,  producing dozens of objects for the kitchen from creamers, spice jars to syrup servers.

These former premiums once obtained for a mere 50 cents and a couple of Aunt Jemima box tops, now littered the flea markets 40 years later.

Seeing the classic Aunt Jemima red and yellow plastic salt and pepper shakers that were suddenly so ubiquitous at second-hand shops in the 1980s brought back childhood memories.

An identical pair had always been displayed in my grandmother Sadies’s  New York City apartment. At the height of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Aunt Jemima and her faithful companion Uncle Mose sat obediently never budging from the shelf in her Manhattan kitchen.

These cheap plastic trinkets seemed oddly out of place in her well-appointed apartment filled with Spode bone china and Francis I sterling silverware. Of course, that was the same silverware my grandmother would always count whenever “the girl” left for the day to ascertain that an ornately embossed sterling fork or two had not accidentally found its way into the cleaning woman’s handbag.

Like others of her generation, my financially comfortable grandmother never left her comfort zone.

On Manhattan’s Riverside Drive in the 1950s, there was no need for a “Coloreds Only” signage. In her gang of privileged women who spent their days at charity luncheons and mah jong games, it was an assumption. Her interactions with Blacks were defined by the household help and the red caps who carried her luggage on the Streamliner to Miami. I thought of it as benign bigotry.

It would be years before I realized it was all part of what I would call everyday racism.

But at the eighties flea markets, home décor went beyond the familiar Mammy cookie jar.

There were glass-fired figurines and chromolith prints featuring nearly identical black men dressed in ragged patched overalls with bulging white eyes running towards fried chicken and watermelons.

Fruit labels of smiling boys holding watermelons twice their size saying “Sho am Sweet,” Ceramic salt and pepper shakers molded in the form of little naked black boys sitting on toilets. Racist signs for Coon Chicken Inn shared space with chalkware plaques of watermelon-eating, grinning little black boys with kinky hair.

Couched in “harmless humor” they reduced Blacks to demeaning stereotypes, driving home the idea that African Americans were only fit for menial jobs like waiters, cooks, or servants.

It was revelatory.

Here in the form of baubles, knick-knacks and trinkets was a hidden history hiding in plain sight. It was the story of Jim Crow made manifest in the middle of a flea market on Sixth Avenue in NYC. These chipped and dusty items were historical artifacts, the physical representations of the kind of attitudes I knew many Americans had about African Americans.  It had always been history that drove my collecting instinct.

Looking at a chalkware plaque of a smiling boy eating watermelon I realized racial artifacts could teach about racism in the same way that the sexist objects I collected shone a light on our misogynist culture.

Displayed in front of me were white people’s anxieties and fears about black people projected onto a tea cozy, a spoon holder, cast iron banks, wind-up toys, and paperweights.  These nearly forgotten cheap household goods had helped justify and maintain a repressed system. Absorbing these derogatory stereotypes could allow good Christian Americans to easily condone discrimination, segregation, injustice, and racism.

There was everyday racism to go with your everyday china.

Mammy Cookie Jar

Mammy Cookie Jar

By 1990 collecting Black Memorabilia especially among African Americans became very popular and very lucrative.

These despicable racial representations removed from their ordinary use were reframed as highly desirable collectibles commanding a high price. The collectibles were in high demand especially among many black celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.  Many African Americans began aquiring these materials as a reminder of the dark period of their history. Collected as a means of preserving history, museums, auction houses and national associations of black collectors escalated the price of these objects. They were intended to be conversation starters.

Which had always been my point.

My kitchen cluttered with racial kitsch could be hard to digest.  It inevitably sparked a conversation about race. These “tchotchkes” made the past tangible and undeniable. Manufactured at a time of colored water fountains, school segregation, and exclusion from public service, they stood as the legacy of separate but equal.

When I questioned myself about owning such objects it helped me to remember there is in fact is a Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. Their slogan “using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice” had been precisely my motivation.

But in recent years, as the Black Lives Matter movement helped raise awareness on racial injustice and inclusion, America’s shameful racial past has become more of our national daily dialogue. I no longer needed these reminders to spark conversation about racial injustice.

The virulent everyday racism seen in the news nearly every week that is still such a part of our lives, was a reminder that the past is still very present.

The everyday racism that still exists today is not nearly as easily discarded as these antique everyday objects were.

 

Postscript

Removed from their ordinary uses,  these objects were reframed as collectibles . Here it   was explained in an introduction from a book- Black Collectables Mammy and her Friends early 1990s

The cheerful designs of household items which depict black people have made them collectable to a wide group today. Prompted by nostalgia and memories of warm households peopled by loving black hands these kitchen tools with cute expressions so pleasant to have around are used as decorations in many homes. And in the collecting world they are becoming popular

Today by collecting black memorabilia you can have the dual pleasure of decorating your home and investing in objects that will almost certainly increase in monetary value as time goes by.

 

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. Sally, it is hard to check the like box on this, as it is so inappropriate even then, but especially now. Thanks for sharing these blatant examples of racism. People need to see these things did happen and were sold. Keith

    Like

    • I think by “liking” what I have written in shining a light onto this dark part of our past is not supporting objects but agreeing in the appalling nature of what was once deemed appropriate and normal. For all our wokeness now, there is no question that there are things that we are fully approving and oblivious to now that will be condemned in the near future as being so inappropriate.

      Like

  2. Those last 2 paragraphs were the crowning touch.

    Liked by 1 person

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