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Thoroughly Modern Mammy 

Of coons, pickaninnies and the gold dust twins: Why do black curios stay chic?

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Illustration by Shino Arihara

THE MOST MEMORABLE CHRISTMAS GIFT I EVER GOT WAS FROM MY best friend about six years ago, an old-fashioned peg board listing stock grocery items one needed to be reminded to buy week to week, such as flour, sugar and bread. The board itself wasn't memorable, but its particular old fashion seared my consciousness and then some: At the top was a decorative ceramic of a grinning, coal-black, red-kerchief-headed "mammy," a reproduction of one of those Jim Crow-era advertisements that have come to be known as black memorabilia. Beneath the ceramic was written, "Fo' da kitchen we needs."

I put the board in a closet and thought, without much conviction, that I'd find a place on the wall for it later. I strove to be heartened by the knowledge that my friend was among the most politically enlightened and erudite black people that I knew, and therefore the peg board had a redemptive quality that would reveal itself to me in time. But quite the reverse happened: Stashed out of sight among the other questionables in my front closet, the peg board bothered me like the invisible pea bothered the princess. Its presence in my apartment began to feel like an affront to many things in it that were meant, I realized, as affirmation — African wood carvings, a framed college degree, family photos, even fashion magazines. Whenever I thought of the mammy peg board or spied it inadvertently, I shrank from it like kryptonite. At last I dug it out and offered it to my downstairs neighbor, also a good friend and a highly conscious black person who nonetheless pronounced it "cute" and took it away. (It must be said that she is also a longtime curio collector especially fond of kitchen things — chili peppers are her favorite motif — so her apolitical assessment of the peg board didn't exactly surprise me.) I was still left with the same deep-down bad feeling bordering on heartburn that black memorabilia always leave me with, and the same nagging question: Why do we keep this stuff around?

I mean we in the strictest sense. I know why whites keep it in circulation — to begin with, they put it in circulation, the black grotesquerie of the Gold Dust Twins and Old Black Joe that branded cleaning powder and tobacco and lots of other goods, as well as many more generic images of watermelon-gobbling pickaninnies that accented everything else from watches to wall clocks. After such stuff fell from popularity at about the middle of the last century, it was relegated to antique-store Americana that, however awkward it might have always been to display, nonetheless fetched a price for rarity and quality of condition. There is always a pure-market argument shop owners can make in defense of having black memorabilia on the shelves. But what, really, is black people's excuse? Why have ceramic-mammy vendor tables become de rigueur at ethnic-pride or even nationalist streetfests like Kwanzaa and Juneteenth? How are big lips and bug eyes, not created for us or by us but entirely against us, even remotely empowering or aesthetically pleasing?

The most common response I get is a vaguely militant claim that we're "taking back" something meant to be sabotaging by embracing it — that is, defanging the wolf by inviting him into your house and hanging him on your wall. Another common rationale is that these black distortions are history, albeit a nadir of history in which naked racial oppression ruled the day, and that we must preserve it as such. I would say that's fine for books and monuments and historical societies, but I hardly see the point in propagating the mammy in the modern consciousness. (Jews have their Holocaust museums and their memorials, but you never see Nazi-created caricatures of Jews rendered on mugs and placemats.) Whenever I go into any antique shop anywhere in the country, in Cambria or New Orleans, my stomach kinks into a knot of apprehension over the blackface I know I'll come across, usually in the back of the store, placed not too discreetly in a corner. No matter how quaint or refined the place, among the first-edition Cole Porter sheet music are versions of "My Old Kentucky Home" with a cover of a big-lipped buck seated by a river, strumming a guitar. I have smothered many an impulse to complain to the proprietor or storm out, knowing how right and how utterly senseless it would have been to do so — here indeed is Americana, whether I like it, or buy it, or not.

I AM NOT ENTIRELY WITHOUT EMPATHY. I UNDERSTAND the urge to mark the bad times lest they be forgotten, which is largely the purpose of blues and spiritual music. But rest assured we are in no danger of gross black stereotypes becoming things of the past; to the contrary, today they retain a sophisticated power well beyond the subliminal or the nostalgic. Aunt Jemima may have traded in her head rag for a suit and pearls back in the 1980s, but she's still selling pancake mix. Uncle Ben still beams from boxes of rice. In the ever more insidious realm of entertainment, Bernie Mac may have an innovative television series, but his trademark pop-eyes are anything but. The recently released movie Friday After Next is the urban equivalent of a traveling minstrel show, a contemporary black commedia dell'arte of hustlers, ho's and ne'er-do-wells that, when this history is all said and done, will sit very comfortably next to the mammies and Black Joes. Progress for African-Americans is increasingly becoming less than the sum of its definitions: The NAACP fought to ban screenings of Birth of a Nation in 1915; 80 years later, mammies, coons and other early relics of high bamboozlement are not only not bannable, but collectible.

Cultural undermining notwithstanding, blacks in theory have the right to use the commerce argument as much as whites. Memorabilia sellers are running legitimate businesses, and perhaps their profit-making even redresses some of the wrong done by whites who benefited financially for so long from what was essentially the stylized fear and mockery of black impoverishment and undereducation, conditions that were (and still are) painfully real. But money, of course, was always only part of the story. Mammyism was also about perpetuating a national negrophobia to keep the American social order intact after the end of slavery threatened, however modestly, to change it. It was about a decades-long PR campaign for the constitutionally reprehensible Jim Crow laws that were enacted around 1900; it was about preaching, through primary colors and snappy logos ("Dat sho' am good!"), the absolute sanctity of keeping the races apart.

The whole trade wouldn't bother me nearly as much if I could believe that black consumers were pointedly taking the stuff out of circulation and routing it to places like Museum in Black, a local curatorial treasure in Leimert Park that documents in artifacts our worst of times, beginning with slave manacles and auction notices and winding up with the Gold Dust Twins. It sells things, of course, but it's primarily a museum, and in such a context the collectibles truly do have power, as unsparing reminders of just how deep the American race animus has run, on permanent display in a hall of shame. But I think it'll be impossible for me to ever regard mammy as a gift, even if blacks at this point had evolved completely out from under the weighty issues of representation. Long after Christmas, when I finally told my friend somewhat guiltily how I felt about the peg board, he waved his hand airily and said, "Oh, it's no big deal. Take it back and get something you like." I wish that had been possible.

The complicated coda to all this is that blacks never quite divested themselves of their own vicious parodies, even when they freely had the right to do so; no doubt we were hampered by a lingering slave mentality, but the quest for Americanness and true self-determination often makes it hard, still, to know whether declaring "sho' is" is affirming or embarrassing. One could argue that blacks never really had such a right at all, that corporations continue into this century to mercilessly appropriate blackness as selling points — I dare anybody to drive down Sunset Strip and not agree. But when we are at home with ourselves, with the television off and only the peg boards and the clown faces to examine, surely we must know.

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