Mammy Jars Make a Mockery of Black People. Why Are They Still Collected?


In a Black History Month roiled by tone-deaf scandals in politics and fashion involving blackface, shoes and balaclavas, you may have missed the one about mammy jars.

Grace Coddington, a former creative director of American Vogue, was photographed with a collection of so-called mammy ceramics in her kitchen for a French lifestyle magazine. The images surfaced in early February and were condemned.

“I am ashamed and embarrassed that I didn’t see the mammy jars in the photo until an Instagram commenter pointed them out to me,” the photographer, Brian Ferry, said in a statement. “I’m sorry for my mistake and the hurt it caused,” he added. I am committed to doing better in the future.” Representatives for Ms. Coddington did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The mammy stereotype portrays black women as obedient maids to white families. Like blackface, racist objects such as mammy jars perpetuate deep-rooted stereotypes about African-Americans by portraying them as docile, dumb and animated. But some white families view these objects as keepsakes, passed down through generations as relics of the past.

More than a century after the heyday of minstrel shows and the peak production of racist objects, some Americans are still learning about the how these cultural products — viewed as forms of entertainment and decorations during the Jim Crow era — dehumanize black people.

This year, February — a month usually set aside for celebrating the achievements of African-Americans — was dominated by a national reckoning with blackface and a series of apologies for racist behavior.

Ralph S. Northam, the governor of Virginia, first apologized for appearing in a photo on his yearbook page that shows a man in blackface standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe, and then he denied appearing in the photo at all. The governor later admitted to putting shoe polish on his face to dress up as Michael Jackson. Days later, Virginia’s attorney general apologized for wearing blackface at a college party. (Both men are still in office.)

Conversations about racist controversies, in politics or fashion, are often framed in terms of how they are offensive to black people, but that leaves out a crucial issue, according to Chico Colvard, the director of a new documentary about the history of racist objects.

“They were everyday objects which portrayed black people as ugly, different and fun to laugh at,” said David Pilgrim, the founder of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. “They were, in a word, propaganda.”

His documentary often weaves in clips from Black Lives Matter protests and the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., to draw connections between the pain African-Americans feel when seeing household caricatures of themselves and the political trauma they experience today.

One scene from the documentary shows Joy, the antiques dealer, at a market outpost in Massachusetts. The camera cuts to a black boy drinking water out of a spigot. “I want the little one, you’re too cute,” says Joy, who is white.

An innocuous comment on its own, her words take on a darker tone in view of the types of items she sells and collects: mechanical banks, minstrel postcards, slave documents, K.K.K. pamphlets. “She sees herself as a preserver of history, of real black history,” Mr. Colvard said in an interview. “She sees this as a history of travail.”

The antiques dealer says she collects the artifacts to “take the wall down between the races.” But profiting from objects that exploit black suffering may suggest a skewed understanding of African-American history and identity. “These are objects used to dehumanize us,” Mr. Colvard said.

Dr. Pilgrim, who is black and has been a collector since he was a child, said some people collect the figurines to keep them off the market. But others collect them as investment pieces and as a form of nostalgia.

“Where a person like myself is likely to see the vestiges of slavery and segregation,” he said, “someone else might be reminded of good times spent with their parents or grandparents and not see the connection at all.”

Nostalgia for these objects nods to the post-Reconstruction era, a time when the United Daughters of the Confederacy mapped out the blueprint for the Lost Cause, a cultural campaign that denied slavery was the reason for the Civil War.

“These figurines laud that time and present a ‘moonlight and magnolias’ view of slavery,” said Keri Leigh Merritt, an Atlanta-based historian and the author of “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.” “They show happy slaves and try to minimize the brutality and the violence and the horror that we know actually happened.”

Dr. Pilgrim, whose museum houses over 5,000 collectibles, hopes the mass presentation of the memorabilia encourages people from various groups to interrogate the messages behind the figurines.

“There’s a reason we need to have these things: To serve as reminders so we’ll never forget,” Mr. Colvard said.

“They shouldn’t be erased from history,” he added, “but I’m not sure they should be casually bought and sold in a regular stream of commerce either.”



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