Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A case for saving imagery that worked in tandem with Jim Crow laws.

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The Reconstruction period between 1865 and 1877, immediately following the abolition of slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment at the close of the Civil War, affirmed that African Americans were inherently equal to white Americans and any other human beings, capable of voting, serving as jurors, testifying in court, buying and cultivating land, forming stable social and cultural institutions, marrying, having families, raising children, learning to read and write—in short, capable of mastering and exemplifying all of the hallmarks of citizenship that make this republic great. Despite centuries of anti-black racist discourse, it turned out that in 12 short years, the mass of the African-American people (90 percent of whom were still in bondage in 1860, a year before the Civil War broke out) demonstrated that they were human beings just like everybody else.

As W.E.B. Du Bois put it, "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery." How was the genie of freedom and equality forced back into the bottle of segregation and second-class citizenship? How was it that the emancipated were "moved back again toward slavery" after only a few years "in the sun"? 

It turns out the assault was double-barreled: first through a series of Jim Crow laws and court rulings that effectively reversed or neutralized the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the 14th and 15th amendments (guaranteeing equal protection under the law and outlawing race-based voting discrimination, respectively), and second (and almost simultaneously) through the astonishingly wide distribution of a massive mountain of negative Sambo images, which were intended to naturalize the image of the black person as sub-human and in doing so justify and subliminally reinforce the perverted logic of the separate and unequal system of Jim Crow itself. The assault was devastatingly effective and brilliantly evil. While next week's column will delve into the legal history with a focus on the era's most notorious case, let's touch on it first and then take a look at some of these horrific images.

We can say that the legal history of what the historian C. Vann Woodward titled his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, took shape in 1883, when the Supreme Court (in United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629) emboldened militant groups like the Ku Klux Klan by striking down a congressional law (the so-called Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871) that attempted to force states to prosecute individuals for conspiring to suppress black people's 14th Amendment rights, even when, in the particular case before the justices, it involved an armed mob dragging four black prisoners out of a Tennessee jail. 

From there forward, a series of laws and legal decisions continued to chip away at these rights. The naked racist underpinnings of these decisions are laid bare in comments about the "nature" of negroes declared in the Mississippi Supreme Court opinion that Justice Joseph McKenna subsequently quoted in his majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898), ruling that discrimination must be found in the text of a state's laws, not just in their administration: "By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependencies, this race has acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, of temperament, and of character, which clearly distinguished it as a race from the whites.  A patient, docile people; but careless, landless, migratory within narrow limits, without forethought; and its criminal members given to furtive offences, rather than the robust crimes of whites."

Sambo's Role in the New Status Quo

The tone struck in the Williams v. Mississippi decision mirrored a trend in the American consumer market, which was inundated with the most debased images of black people. Following the Civil War, because of the technological innovation of chromolithography, it became cheap to mass-produce multicolored advertisements. By the 1890s—precisely when Jim Crow was hardening as the law of the land—one of the most popular forms of these advertisements was the widespread distribution of extremely demeaning and negative images of African Americans. So popular were they with the public, so widespread was their consumption, that virtually anywhere a white person saw an image of an African American they saw one of these stereotypes of a sub-human, deracinated beast-like being, like a visual mantra reinforcing the negativity of difference.

So, when a white person confronted an actual black human being, he or she was "an already read text," to use Barbara Johnson's brilliant definition of a stereotype in her book, A World of Difference. It didn't matter what the individual black man or woman said and did, because negative images of them in the popular imagination already existed, as if they were "always 'in place,' '' as my colleague Homi K. Bhabha puts it (pdf), "already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated … as if the essential … bestial sexual license of the African [for example] that needs no proof, can never really, in discourse, be proved." Hence the need to repeat these images over and over again, endlessly. The racist stereotype was subconsciously imposed on the face of an actual African American, the American mask of blackness, and these images justified the rollback of the gains black people had made during Reconstruction.

The fears and anxieties of black people from within the white collective unconscious were projected onto a plethora of quotidian, everyday, ordinary consumer objects, as we depict in the accompanying slide show, including post cards and trading cards, teapots and tea cozies, children's banks and children's games, napkin holders and pot holders, clocks and ash trays, sheet music and greeting cards, consumer products such as Aunt Jemima pancake mix and Gold Dust washing powder, Nigger Head tobacco and Jolly Nigger Head banks, "Pick the Pickaninny" songs, puzzles and dolls,  Valentine Day cards, a seemingly endless number of watermelon-devouring and chicken-stealing "coons" and a veritable deluge of Sambo imagery spread throughout virtually every form of advertisement for a consumer product. 

One motif illustrates the history of evolution by showing the transmutation of a watermelon into a "coon." A sub-genre of lynching postcards also became popular, especially "The Dogwood Tree," depicting five black bodies hanging from one tree in Sabine County, Texas, on June 22, 1908 (see slide show below). One accompanying caption says: "In the Sunny South, the Land of the Free,/Let the WHITE SUPREME forever be./Let this a warning to all negroes be,/Or they'll suffer the fate of the DOGWOOD TREE." It's no surprise that between 1889 and 1918, according to the NAACP's "Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States," more than 3,000 lynchings took place in the U.S., a reflection of the powerful effect these racist images had to justify otherwise decent people to commit the most horrific crimes. 

Racist Memorabilia and Lynching Postcards: Jim Crow's Strange Face

From Sambo ads to Mammy jars to lynching postcards, the propaganda that reinforced segregation.