Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia?

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

Color halftone reproduction of drawing signed in lower left Erhart, copyright Keppler & Schwarzmann. Illustration in Puck, Feb. 2, 1913
Color halftone reproduction of drawing signed in lower left Erhart, copyright Keppler & Schwarzmann. Illustration in Puck, Feb. 2, 1913

In response to this fascinating rhetorical question—”[Since] some items are disturbing, offensive and hard to believe, [if you collect and display them] are you creating these images yourself?”—her pamphlet answers: “No, definitely not,” since the store “contains astounding mementos reflecting true lives of people of African descent,” including all that African Americans have suffered through visual media, “depictions [that] are a testimony of life in the past,” including “the ‘good, bad, and ugly.’ ” And in response to whether “these politically incorrect depictions” are, in fact, “teaching racism,” the pamphlet answers that “displaying memorabilia as part of a home, no matter how painful it may seem, is ensuring that ‘each one teach one’ and that history must not repeat itself.” Our children, it continues, “must know where we have been to know where we are going.” In other words, the most important function of displaying and collecting this stuff is a didactic one: critique. And there is a lot here to critique.

The Spread of Everyday Racism

The first question that strikes any student of Sambo Art is, Why so many images? It is the sheer number of these images that strikes me as perhaps the most amazing fact about them collectively. I mean, how many ways can one call a woman or a man “nigger” or “coon”? How many watermelons does a person have to be represented as devouring, how many chickens stolen, to make the point that black people are ostensibly by nature gluttonous thieves? Why in the world did anyone think it necessary to produce tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of discrete racist images—a set of fixed types or motifs, including those luscious watermelons and irresistible plump chickens, ranging across virtually every conceivable form of American popular culture following the end of Reconstruction and more particularly at the turn of the 19th century? The explanation comes in three words: justifying Jim Crow.

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.”