Racist Memorabilia

September 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Memory – for individuals and groups – is selective.  But what happens when we come face to face with memories that we would rather not select?

At a local flea market yesterday, one of the sellers market had this page displayed on his table along with a three-fingered fielder’s mitt from the 1940s, a safety razor with blade sharpener from the 20s or 30s, and much other Americana. The seller said that the page is from an 1880s book, probably a children’s book, though it could be even earlier.

(Click on the picture for a larger view. 
I added contrast to improve the visibility. The colors of actual page were considerably faded.)

The word racism often evokes images of vicious attitudes and behavior – the pictures from Little Rock 1954, white adults spewing hatred at seven-year-old children for doing nothing more than going to school.

What this page documents is not hatred but instead a set of taken-for-granted assumptions and ideas. Today, the racism of Ten Little Niggers is so obvious that I felt uncomfortable just looking at it. I would much have preferred it if this bit of memorabilia were forgetabilia. But I doubt that people a century ago – good people, people like you and me – would have seen it as marker of anything unusual or wrong. To them it was probably just an amusement of no significance.

Here is the flea-market seller displaying the cover page.

He told this story:  He said that he used to sell his wares out of a shop in the Bronx. One day Bill Cosby came into the store and bought just about all the items like this, memorabilia from America’s racist past.  The tab came to $7000 dollars. Cosby then left the store and dumped all the stuff he’d just bought into the garbage.

I was a bit skeptical, but I said nothing. Checking the Internet later, I found this:
About seventy per cent of the collectors are black and they include Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, whose mantel is lined with Mammy figurines, and other entertainment celebrities.  (more here)
Why would a collector throw away the memorabilia he collects?  Still, maybe the story is true. Or maybe he is doing what most people and nations do: constructing the past to make it more palatable, more consistent with the way we see ourselves now.


Unknown said...

Unfortunately, we don't get to select what people remember about us.

In my family, American Indians of various nations, responses run the gamut.

My Cherokee grandfather would not carry a $20 bill because Andrew Jackson's face was on it.

My grandfather did a bit well for himself and would periodically offer to give some young native 4 $5 bills and an extra $1 for a twenty. He would then tear the twenty into little pieces or burn it and give a lengthy teaching about the horrors of Andrew Jackson towards native peoples.

On the other hand, one of my adopted Lakota relatives carries a picture of Mt. Rushmore in his wallet to remind himself always that white people can't be trusted with the sacred land. He, also uses it as a teaching tool.

The problem with erasing, literally whitewashing, history is that it selects for an entire society what is available to be remembered.

And as Barbara Streisand assured us in the Way We Were, "what's too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget."

I suppose it comes down to what story/lesson we attach to the memory, individually or collectively.

And, of course, how much money and platform we have to popularize that story.


Jay Livingston said...

Hi shari. Thanks for the perceptive, and, I think, accurate comment.

Your grandfather was doing what the flea market seller said (or hoped) that Cosby was doing.
We all select our memories so that our past is mostly consistent with how we see our present. Nations try to do the same thing. The difference is that for individuals, there’s seldom anyone digging up the contradictory facts from the past. It happens some times (for an excellent example, listen to this story from This American Life a couple of weeks ago).
The trouble is that nations are diverse, and groups will differ as to which historical facts should be remembered. Hence the political wrangling over American history textbooks for high school. Your grandfather calls attention to something many Euro-Americans, as you say, would simply choose to forget.

Unknown said...

That was a great listen on This American Life. Thanks for the link.

There is definitely merit in the idea that our choices on how to view our stories, either as individuals or as nations, shapes us.

I liked the lead in about college students getting into Columbia. My daughter constantly explains to her Princeton classmates that they are simply winners of the Ivy League lotto in an attempt to point out that gratitude might be a better reaction than entitlement.

They seem to be much like Emir in their reluctance to change their story. Though fortunately, at least from my perspective, they haven't changed hers either.