So What DO We Do With the Racist Imagery of the Good Old Days?

It’s no reflection on Chico Colvard that he’s better at raising the issue of racist memorabilia than at resolving it.

Almost all of us are.

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Classic Mammy image.

A new documentary, Black Memorabilia, airs Monday at 10 p.m. in the PBS Independent Lens series. Colvard is the producer and director and he wrestles indeterminately with the subject even though he comes to it with a strong personal point of view.

Colvard explains that he grew up with all-too-familiar racial imagery, from TV cartoons to the food packaging in his kitchen cabinets, and that “these exaggerated and demeaning representations of African-Americans were alien to the hard-working and dignified people I knew.”

No reasonable person today would argue with that. The question is what to do with and how to regard the vestigial presence of these objects and images.

For many years, mainstream marketers saw nothing offensive about selling products with images and physical objects of, say, a black child with bulging eyes and a wide grin eating a slice of watermelon.

Colvard tackles the question by breaking his film into three specific contemporary individual stories.

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Jian.

In the first segment, he follows Jian, a Chinese factory worker who painstakingly paints caricatured old-style black faces on iron containers that are sold as replicas (or sometimes passed off as originals) of actual containers that were mass-marketed in America decades ago.

Jian, who Colvard says is a composite of a real-life and dramatized character, talks about her work, which is not easy or lucrative. She takes pride in it, purely as craft, and sometimes looks on eBay to see how much those containers are selling for. She wonders if some of them might be hers.

She also acknowledges a personal ambivalence, because she understands the nature of the images. Colvard follows her through to some decisions on this dilemma.

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Joy.

The second segment follows Joy, a white memorabilia dealer who specializes in what some might call the underside of Americana.

She sells unflattering images of African Americans, on paper and on various objects, mostly knick-knacks.

She sells material like certificates of slave sales. And Confederate flags. And Ku Klux Klan items. Alongside other historical documents and items that have nothing to do with race.

She says she sells them because people want them — black memorabilia is hot these days, she explains — and in the hopes that everyone will eventually come to agree that we have buried their original racist implications.

If that sounds naïve, in many ways it’s the heart of the issue. These things exist. They are part of American history, as they are woven into the history of other countries. We can’t erase them, and if we could, we shouldn’t.

If we don’t remember and acknowledge the genesis, nature and depth of a problem, we make it exponentially more difficult to correct. The mantra of Holocaust survivors applies here: Never forget.

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Chico Colvard.

Since Colvard only has an hour, he doesn’t host a broader academic debate on his complex question. He suggests his own view with a third segment that focuses on an African-American artist in Brooklyn.

That artist, Alexandria, dresses models and creates performance productions using trappings from racist caricatures, like the black kitchen maid with the rag bonnet around her hair.

What this does, says Alexandria, is reclaims ownership of those images, stripping them of their racist power.

That’s not a new approach. Some rappers, for years, have explained their use of the N-word as reclaiming it, making it a fraternal term inside the family rather than a dismissive term from an outsider.

Perhaps in the long term, reclamation will prove a feasible strategy. Perhaps.

Colvard makes a convincing case, partly through several sobering montages of racially incendiary images, that too much of America for too many years systematically portrayed black folks as narcissistic, dangerous, animalistic, utilitarian or foolishly simple.

That unsettling truth, in the broader sense, lies behind the tsunami currently swirling around Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, who in college some 35 years ago didn’t seem to consider a black caricature a big deal.

Northam the governor may no longer be that young man. People can learn, get smarter, understand more, become more sensitive, do good.

What doesn’t change is how sore the spot was and in too many ways remains.

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Sheet music for 1894 song popularized in minstrel shows.

The troubling side of black memorabilia — and let’s not forget there’s also an uplifting side, the side that recalls achievement, art and dignity — leaves us a physical as well as psychological legacy of our dishonorable past.

If we get to a point where we can say that’s the way we were and the way we won’t be again, we will have settled the question Colvard addresses.

We aren’t there yet.

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