I am troubled by the question of what to do with a few items I have which fall under the category 'black memorabilia'. All of these items depict black mammies, and from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, I love them. The colors -- black, white, & red -- are striking. The rag doll mother and child were stitched by hand. Same with the framed appliqué canvas. And I adore cookie jars in the shapes of people or animals. A black mammy seems like a nostalgic symbol of home and hospitality.
Indeed, the black nannies, housekeepers, and cooks portrayed in films like It's a Wonderful Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, and Imitation of Life are sympathetic, even heroic characters. They balance discipline with love; they teach lessons based on homespun wisdom; and most of all, they understand the plight of children, perhaps because they themselves are second-class citizens.
But we know that a black mammy was first a slave, and then later, a servant and in both cases, undereducated and confined to a domestic setting. So when we take an uneducated servile woman and transform her into a representation for an entire race of people, and then mass-produce that negative image and sell it for decorative use in our homes, we are sanitizing racism under the cloak of nostalgia. We are enabling ourselves to ignore the ugly undertones and without even realizing it, we have become comfortable with this form of racism. The more salt and pepper shakers we collect, the more we are extending the reach of racism and prolonging its life.
Last week, Harper Lee passed away. She wrote so sensibly and eloquently on the topics of race and discrimination. Her depiction of Calpurnia, the black housekeeper who kept Jem and Scout in line, and whom Atticus defends as a lifesaver, was based on her own nanny, Hattie Bell Clausell. Lee's father hired Ms. Clausell, a widow, when Lee's mother became incapacitated with mental illness. Hattie Bell Clausell lived in the black part of town and walked three miles back and forth each day to take care of Ms. Lee and her three siblings.
Anyway, in my sadness at the loss of Harper Lee, I've decided that the time has come to do something with these mammies. Here are my options, in a listicle format:
- I could mail the mammies to Anita Pointer, eldest of the Pointer Sisters, who has amassed a giant collection of "contemptible collectibles" mainly to get them off the market. You can read more about her collection here.
- I could drive the mammies to Michigan, to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. It opened at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan in 2012. Its founder and curator, David Pilgrim, who sometimes calls himself a garbage collector, says that his museum is not a shrine to racism but a tool to teach history. A fascinating interview with David Pilgrim here.
- I could sell the collection and donate the proceeds to Howard University. I don't understand why, but there is still a market for these things. Here is a dish towel similar to my framed appliqué. It sold for $60 on eBay.
- I could simply destroy the mammies. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the esteemed historian, talks about that option when he admits that he collects "Sambo Art." You can read his essay for PBS here.
I am interested in what you think I should do. Feel free to leave me a comment or email me privately here.
Photos by Renn Kuhnen.