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Collecting Controversy : The curios and figurines of a racist past are hot properties. For some African Americans,they inspire outrage; for others, a new sense of empowerment.


In the harsh light of present-day, they are at once angering and sobering. Artifacts of an unsettling past.

Stark whites of eyes and impossibly wide smiles glint from pools of black lacquered porcelain. Red head rags, patched together hand-me-downs. A silent parade of dancing pickaninnies and benevolent Uncle Toms.

Still others arranged for display: table services adorned with bronze-skinned figures slumbering beneath shady sombreros; postcards depicting a placid Japanese homemaker smiling, busy at her task.

Curios from a less-enlightened age? Possibly. Antiques? Not necessarily.

One can find newly refashioned retro images like these at hip Melrose boutiques transforming Mammy and her notorious peers into refrigerator magnets or greeting cards "authenticated" with bawdy messages in dialect, just about as easily as the antique versions, in endless incarnations at flea markets or antique malls.

It proves this: simply assigning these images to a sepia chapter from an unfortunate past would be erroneous. Readily available, and commanding high prices, they live on, very few even moderately transformed.

No matter how benign, these monuments to stereotypes, whether breezy off-color jabs or imbued with the hot hate of racism, are enshrined in the homes of the very people who were the target of their ridicule. And it is this curio that perplexes, oftentimes more than the antique pieces that ultimately rust, fray, fade or shatter.


In the gallery space of pop star Anita Baker's plush Michigan mansion, African statues cohabit with mammy cookie jars and "Tom and Auntie" salt and pepper shakers.

Other prominent African Americans known for their prodigious collections of black memorabilia that many would still view as offensive include Whoopi Goldberg, Julian Bond and Oprah Winfrey.

And what to make of this unexpected move? Pop singer Gladys Knight breathes new life into the racially loaded image of Aunt Jemima, wrapping her sultry, Grammy-winning voice around the pancake jingle, "Now you're cookin'."

Some call these images "Blackabilia," others "Derogatory Collectibles." In her new book, "Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture" (Anchor), Patricia A. Turner dubs them "contemptible collectibles"--these images so persistent and so impervious to the prevailing mood of political correctness.

What these images mean to those who collect, sell and currently manufacture them ranges as widely as the product available.

"One of the most asked questions I get is, ' Why do you do this?' " says Regina Jackson, a Northern California-based collector who travels selling everything from authentic Jim Crow signs to reproductions of vintage product advertisements. Her card plainly states her mission: "Mammy Pleasant Black Collectibles: Let Us Embrace Mammy's Past/Her Strength Lies Within Us All."

The message, like the products themselves, inspire potent emotional responses, Jackson admits. But along with shock or undiluted anger, Jackson hopes the images she peddles might inspire a sense of illumination.

"The main reason I sell what I sell is that it's really helped me come to terms with who I am," says Jackson, who is African American. "I grew up wondering why my hair won't grow? Why is it so nappy? Why is my butt so big? And then dealing with the racism in the race? The light-skinned sisters here, the dark-skinned sisters there--and I was in the middle. I didn't feel real good about myself . . . my history or anything," Jackson recalls.

"It wasn't until I was an adult and had gone through some personal changes in my life that . . . I realized how strong I am and how much I can endure. I looked at the things in my house, my collection, and I said: 'My God, there's my strength. I've been walking on these people's backs.' "

Jackson, who subsequently "fell in love with (her) blackness," sees something else looming behind portrayals of blacks so many simply write off as tasteless, offensive, or downright hateful:

"I think the problem a lot of people have is what this woman looks like. And I just saw beyond the heavy buxom woman with the red head rag . . . and I started thinking about what this woman did for us. And I just saw her in a whole different way. And I think we need to get back to what that woman did. She was a nurturer, a provider. . . ."

But there are plenty who believe that is not a necessary journey. Others say they've been there--if not physically, psychically--and don't care to ever go back.

When Jackson sets up her colorful tables at flea markets or jazz festivals, or even her collectible-cluttered living-space, she can read the subtlest of reactions. Those who give it a quick look and keep stepping; the traces of anger simmering or tears gathering in the eyes.

Jackson can empathize, remembering her own early reactions to the caricatures: "When I looked at these things, I saw them as sort of a visual prison."

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