Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Heritage, Not Hate? Collecting Black Memorabilia. (Essay)

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Heritage, Not Hate? Collecting Black Memorabilia. (Essay)

Article excerpt

Early in my research on slave narratives and the popular imagination I was leafing through moldy magazines when I became transfixed by a proliferation of advertisements that used images of black children. At the back of the journals' yellowing pages, I saw blackened, tar-colored characters that were used to sell stove polish, black shoes, black thread--any domestic good that could be sold by exploiting the children's exaggerated blackness. The connection between these characters and the goods they advertised was not readily apparent to me then, and I became determined to understand their purpose. I started to photocopy those images wherever I saw them in magazines from around the turn of the twentieth century. It was not until later that I learned that my desire to collect these images had inadvertently placed me in the company of an elite, but controversial, group of African Americans who trade in these images and other objects, which they have labeled "black memorabilia."

I had seen such images before. When I was a child in the sixties, our family pilgrimages from St. Louis to visit our grandmother in New Orleans had been punctuated by Mammy dolls, grotesque figurines, and racist postcards in every truck-stop gift-shop along Highway 55. I had seen them even more recently when I drove Interstate 95 from my home in Orlando to defend my dissertation in Pittsburgh. Stops in North and South Carolina, often in the same stores that sell Confederate flags, revealed that the images are currently less abundant, but no less surprisingly racist.

More recently, such images have made it into the national mainstream. In Spike Lee's satirical film Bamboozled, for example, blackface minstrelsy and Aunt Jemima cookie jars serve as complex symbols of African American wealth, as well as battlegrounds for class struggle and violence. (1) Before the film lurched into the controversial arena of public opinion, I had no idea that these images I had seen in my youthful travels through the Deep South had achieved an entirely different audience. I had to head north to Silver Spring, Maryland, in order to find out their current value.

In April of 1998 I decided to learn more about the images by attending the Tenth Annual Black Memorabilia Showcase in Silver Spring. Since the images were so obviously derogatory, I prepared myself for what I believed would be a convention of collectors who were overwhelmed with nostalgia for lost white supremacy. Because I knew nothing about the images as "black memorabilia," I did not know who collected them, nor could I imagine why. As for myself, I was not a "collector." Rather, I was a historian, I reasoned, who had no intention of selling the grotesque images. I merely sought a historical understanding of my photocopies.

I was therefore stunned to learn that the Showcase was promoted and organized by Malinda Saunders--herself an African American. Moreover, when I arrived at the Silver Spring armory, I found the place jammed with brown and black people hawking rusted "Authentic Slave Shackles" that only a consumer with a platinum credit card could purchase. I paid a rotund brown woman the three-dollar entrance fee and walked in utter amazement past brown and black buyers and sellers of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Antique documents of manumission, Aunt Jemima pancake boxes ("mint-condition, headwrap image"), Jackson Five album covers, Michael Jordan posters, and grotesquely exaggerated racist ads were sold, bartered, and valued in the armory's multiple levels. My own ignorance about the current value and trade in these artifacts had come to the right place.

At the Silver Spring armory I learned that my photocopies are indeed considered to be "black memorabilia," and the originals are often worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Currently, the trade in black memorabilia, which includes "black ephemera," or advertisements, has become a lucrative exchange whose goods have risen in value enormously in the past thirty years. …

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