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The Black, White and Shades of Grey in Collecting Black Americana

Once, black Americana was a collectibles area reserved for blacks ‘of a certain age’, including celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Spike Lee, and Whoopie Goldberg, who wished to chronicle and document the struggles of their race, or historians of many colors. One collector told Pamela Wiggins why she collects and decorates her home with black Americana items:

“I had to ask why she’d be interested in owning something so offensive… She wanted to own all types of Black Americana because they were a reflection of her cultural heritage. Her ancestors dealt with more hardships than she would, thankfully, ever know. But acknowledging these difficulties and triumphs through her varied collection reflected an important aspect of her lineage when incorporated into her home’s decor.”

But now younger African-Americans and others are buying these items and reproductions to decorate their homes. Some without the same motivations.

According to Howard Dodson, director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, “There are two kinds of collectors of black Americana: those who are interested in collecting as a financial investment and those with a passion for finding ‘the missing pages of history.’”

Black Americana certainly is a wise investment. In an area where much was destroyed because it was offensive, ugly and degrading — destroyed as we Americans tried to purge the proof of our racism — authentic items are rapidly increasing in value. It is also said that many African-Americans bought lots of racist items in the 1970′s and then promptly destroyed it all.

Even reproductions have more value than you might think, as collectors want to get their hands on something.

However, along with the usual concerns that valuable documentation of our history is not being properly saved, there is the question: should black Americana be bought and sold?

There is also some concern that part of the drive in purchasing black Americana is pimpin’ black culture.: that this adoption of old images and negative stereotypes is being glamorized in a perverse way. Like hip-hop’s bad ‘rap’ (pun intended), collecting black Americana is sweeping the nation in a concerning way.

Perhaps most concerning to me, a white woman of a certain age, is the number of white folks who are buying reproductions of black lawn jockeys.

Yes, white people with black lawn jockeys.

Some claim it is to validate and honor Jocko Graves, the son of a free black soldier named Thomas Graves, who fought alongside George Washington. The story goes that Washington assigned the youth to safely remain on the Pennsylvania shore with the horses while they crossed the Delaware. Jocko was also to keep a lantern burning so George and the soldiers would know where to return after battle. When Washington and his army returned they discovered Jocko had frozen to death — still holding the horses and the lit lantern.

The story continues that Washington was so moved by Jocko’s devotion that he commissioned a statue in Jocko’s honor. Titled “Faithful Groomsman” the statue stood at Mount Vernon in honor of the young patriot.

This story is, at least in part, presented by Waymon LeFall who has written a children’s book, The Legend of Jocko, Hero of the American Revolution, which he calls a missing piece of African American history. LeFall says that lawn jockeys are not racist reminders of the days of slavery but monuments to an African American hero.”

But Professor Kenneth Goings, chairman of African-American and African Studies at Ohio State University and the author of the 1995 book Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping, says this legend isn’t true. And in an October interview with ‘The Daily Journal’, Goings says the lawn jockeys are “very, very much racist symbols” and says that he’s amazed people can believe anything else. He continued to say black lawn jockeys are part of the Old South mythology: “They are meant to evoke that Old South, grand plantation, Gone With the Wind mythology, and I’m not sure they can evoke anything else.”

As a white woman perhaps I shouldn’t say anything on the subject of such racist symbols and what they mean… After all, I don’t want a man telling me (or the world) how to feel about witch hunts and symbols of misogyny. But I do declare, the black lawn jockey shouldn’t be on any white person’s property.

If you aren’t black and you collect black Americana, at least keep it within your home where it can have the context of your explanation — that it is for historical reasons, family ties, belief in Jocko’s patriotism, or whatever non-racist interest you have.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely appreciate the intentions in preserving the vanishing American history — and interest in the black experience. I do the same in the name of feminism. But if you’re white and have a black lawn jockey, don’t expect anyone else to know you believe in Jocko or that you’re a history buff. Don’t expect them to visit you to find out what your reason is.


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M. S. Hennessy

M. S. Hennessy I did a piece on collecting Third Reich militaria a few weeks ago that caused quite a stir among my friends. One in particular professed her Jewish heritage as the reason she was so offended at the very sight of the Swastika emblazoned on uniform items I have in my collection. I suggested that she abstain from visiting the National Holocaust Museum in D.C. as their Third Reich collection is probably the most superior in this country. I also informed her that my wife's family was murdered by the Nazis in Lithuania...and she and her family understand what the objects didn't perpetrate the heinous crimes. This poor girl had no direct connection other than that she had Jewish heritage. One could argue that the Nazis made the American slave trade a minor cultural infraction when compared to what they did (there's no comparing in either direction, IMO) to the Jews and other "undesirable people. If this dark side of humanity is destroyed with no tangible reminders, what replaces them is the very real possibility of history being repeated. In many ways, collecting is the act of preserving history. April 24th, 2012 at 9:48 PM

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