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

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. 

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.