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.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city