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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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. 

Meanwhile, images of the black people as childlike even extended to those living in Cuba and Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American War, as we can see in an 1899 illustration from Puck, included in the slide show below.

We should understand that this Sambo "art" is the way that anti-black racism found its daily existence, drowning out the actual nature and achievements of black people, and it explains why so many black thinkers and artists embarked upon "The New Negro" movement between 1900 and 1925, starting with Du Bois' exhibition of photographs of middle-class Negroes at the Paris Exposition of 1900. As Du Bois put it in Darkwater, "One cannot ignore the extraordinary fact that a world campaign beginning with the slave-trade and ending with the refusal to capitalize the word 'Negro,' leading through a passionate defense of slavery by attributing every bestiality to blacks and finally culminating in the evident modern profit which lies in degrading blacks -- all this has unconsciously trained millions of honest, modern men into the belief that black folk are sub-human," "a mass of despicable men, inhuman; at best, laughable; at worst, the meat of mobs and fury." 

Chromolithography and the American marketplace made anti-black racism a commodity, widely consumed in the most unconscious ways, reinforcing and reflecting the legalization of racism and the delimitations being systematically inflicted upon the rights of black citizens by the courts and Southern legislatures. As the historian Thomas Holt concludes in "Marking: Race, Race-making, and the Writing of History" (pdf), a brilliant analysis of the role of minstrelsy in naturalizing every day anti-black racism, "it is precisely within the ordinary and everyday that racialization has been most effective, where it makes race," a process "that fixes the meaning of one's self before one even had had the opportunity to live and make a self," "capable of communicating at a glance accumulated stores of racialized knowledge." 

To return to the question that Gail Deculus-Johnson poses in her brochure at Sable Images in Los Angeles -- why should we collect these racist artifacts? -- it would be good to turn to Du Bois for an answer. "In the fight against race prejudice," he explained in Darkwater, "we were facing age-long complexes sunk low largely to unconscious habit and irrational urge." And the shadow of these images still haunts every African-American's existence within American society, like ghosts of the Jim Crow past, because "it is at this level that race is reproduced long after its original historical stimulus -- the slave trade and slavery. It is at this level that seemingly rational and ordinary folk commit irrational and extraordinary acts," as Thomas Holt writes. 

In other words, these images are still very much with us, as one can see by examining the horrifically racist images of President Obama already collected at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, founded and curated by David Pilgrim. And we need to study these images in order to deflect the harm that they continue to inflict upon African Americans, at the deepest levels of the American unconscious.

This Friday, June 7, marks the 121st anniversary of a more immediate harm inflicted on a 30-year-old Creole man whose name would become associated with one of the most notorious cases in U.S. Supreme Court history. The reason he was jailed: sitting on a "Whites Only" car on a Louisiana railroad. His intention: deliberate. Even though he could pass for white, he announced he was black. In testing his state's Jim Crow law, he and the legal team behind him defied stereotypes. The legal opinions that followed reinforced them. Remember Homer Plessy this Friday and read about his case and other "Strange Faces of Jim Crow" here in next week's column.      

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

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

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