Living with Black Americana

Mammy doll
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Certain areas of collecting can be hard to understand at times. Past generations didn't always practice cultural sensitivity when advertising products and purchasing decorative and novelty items for their homes. Some of these items can be downright offensive today.

Black Americana consistently falls into one of these difficult to grasp categories, especially when dealing with items produced from the '20s through the '50s that insensitively stereotype African-Americans. The derogatory nature of these items reflects a different time in American history when it was acceptable to have these things not only in the home but most everywhere.

People ate at Coon Chicken Inn restaurants, bought Gold Dust Twins cleaning products at local markets and outfitted their kitchens with Aunt Jemima, Uncle Mose, and other caricatures. They even crafted folk art items that are widely collected today. Should these things be swept under the proverbial rug and forgotten forever? There are many people who would answer no.

In all honesty, it doesn't matter whether having these items in a home long ago was right or wrong. What matters is how these objects make you feel today. If you associate them with discomfort, you can certainly choose not to own them. If you appreciate them for their historical value and collectible nature, that’s another matter entirely. Some people find them to be interesting just because they’re so ridiculous to us now.

The Question of Slavery and Collectibles

Documents and artifacts reflecting the history of slavery are also important in this field, and one of the most difficult aspects to address.

Some people feel very strongly that documents and items associated with holding slaves should never be sold for any reason. Others believe ignoring the past to be disrespectful to those who lived through the challenges of enslavement, even though remembering it can, more often than not, be disturbing.

We must remember that an entire war was fought over this issue right on American soil. It’s ingrained in our history and that fact cannot be avoided. Choosing to collect slavery-related items or Civil War memorabilia with a slavery bent is certainly a very personal decision, but it’s not always a reflection of character and we must keep this in mind as well.

Who collects this stuff?

Many people don't want "Mammy" items in their home because of the negativity they represent. The same thing goes for advertising memorabilia or any other type of collectible shedding a less than favorable light on black history.

Others have a completely opposite reaction. They want to own all types of Black Americana because those items were a reflection of their cultural heritage. A collection reflecting both difficulties and triumphs embrace important aspects of lineage and interest in our nation's history. It's reported that Oprah Winfrey is among the celebrity collectors interested in black memorabilia, so other collectors are in good company.

Collecting takes a different turn in these terms. It's not just a matter of fun, frivolity, and amassing things to fill a home. It becomes a personal endeavor to make peace with the past and ensure a prosperous future free of racial barriers.

Finding Positive Influences Through Black Memorabilia

On the other side of the coin, choosing items produced by black artists, or featuring musical or literary talents, actors, and sports figures in a positive light can serve to balance a collection while entertaining and educating the owner. There are many, many items you can choose to collect that offer inspiration and help to banish negativity.

For instance, collecting items relating to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. can fall into this category. Letters, programs from speaking engagements, and items that were owned or autographed by either Dr. King or members of his family are all considered historically important, and yes, very collectible.

Pursuing a Well-Balanced Collection

Opinions differ, but many folks tend to agree with the belief that collecting Black Americana can comprise a wide variety of items. A well-balanced collection would show the both the bad and good, painful and positive to be complete. 

What individuals choose to collect is a very personal choice. The folks that only shop for more offensive representations of black culture often want them based on the novelty and collectible nature of the objects, since some of them can be valuable, not necessarily disrespect for others.