Considering Black Memorbilia

Last evening we watched an Independent Lens (PBS) production titled Black Memorabilia. Basically, it spent an interesting hour focusing on the memorabilia that has and continues to reinforce African American stereotypes. Those stereotypes that have been used to demean, belittle, psychologically harm, instill fear, sell products, and continue to be profitable as the collector market explodes.

In all the flea markets and auctions I’ve attended I can’t recall coming across such items. I have, however, seen a lot of Nazi memorabilia changing hands. Being a child of the WWII era I have a cursory interest in these items but never had the desire to own or collect them. Just touching an SS lapel badge feels kind of slimy to me.

The same kind of thing happens when I see photos of black memorabilia, interesting from a historical aspect but I’m bothered by people wanting to own and collect those things that represent the tangible reality of America’s horrible racist history.

The people featured in the story represent those in China who make a living by casting reproductions of these most offensive items, to those in America who are earning their living buying and selling these items of hate online and at flea markets.  Since special shows and auctions are held that feature just black memorabilia there has to be a market. That’s a third aspect of the show, who makes up the market?

The market seems to be divided. Seventy percent of those who collect black memorabilia are African Americans who simply want to preserve their people’s history. Others may collect because of a general interest in preserving anything related to American history. Still, others seemed to view it as examples of Southern culture and this group would include those with benign interests and those who use it to glorify and promote white supremacy.

What to do about this, if anything, can be a mixed bag for Americans. In general, I’m not interested in erasing or denying our often ugly history. It’s the same debate we’re having with Confederate statuary, do we allow it to stand and remind us of what we once were in hopes that we don’t choose to be that again? There is a part of me that smiles every time a Confederate general is lifted by a crane from his saddle and hauled off to a foundry, warehouse, or museum. There’s another part that says, let it stand and use it as a teaching tool to demonstrate what once was and shouldn’t have ever been.

Some argue these all these reminders should be sent to the landfills because they cause people to sense fear. While I can understand that I can’t support it. I have to refer back to the Constitution and the right to freedom expression. Time and again the Courts have ruled that people aren’t protected from being offended. Back in the 1970s, a neo-Nazi group wanted to stage a march through a predominantly Jewish community, Skokie, IL. A court suit ensued with those opposed arguing that many Skokie residents were Holocaust survivors and seeing Nazi uniforms and symbols in their streets would be offensive and harmful.

The ACLU came to the support of the Nazis on the basis of freedom of expression. The Court agreed and I agreed with the arguments of the ACLU and the Court. I don’t want mobs of Swatzika carrying brown shirts parading through our streets. I don’t want gangs of racist thugs brandishing burning crosses while hiding behind bed sheets and pillowcases. What I do want, however, is people to have the right to non-violently voice their opinions and own and display the symbols of those opinions. I remain a believer that in the bright light of day, these social bacteria will melt away like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. I also believe the source of that bright light can be an open-minded free-thinking educational system.

Back to the film to close. There was one scene that truly bothered me. It was of Chinese ironworkers, who themselves are maligned people, eating their lunch while watching the news on television. As they took a break from casting and painting “Jolly Nigger” banks for sale in America, the news was all about racial rioting in America in places like Ferguson. Some, if not all, recognized their contribution to America’s racial issues and were repulsed by it. One woman, who was especially bothered would get on eBay and wonder which banks for sale had been made by her, finally quit her job and moved on.

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