Question of the Month
My Mother Collects Ashtrays...
Q: My mother collects ashtrays. One of her ashtrays is shaped like a black person's face and you put ashes in the mouth. It is really ugly and disgusting. Most of her other ashtrays are cute. Do you think this means she is racist?
-- J. Meyers, Cadillac, Michigan
A: No. The presence of a racist object or a racially insensitive object in one's home is not necessarily indicative of racist beliefs. Black Memorabilia is an eclectic category that includes material objects that depict the images, history, life, and culture of African Americans. For instance, some Black Memorabilia is positive, such as Harlem Renaissance art, Negro League baseball collectibles, and objects related to the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, the majority of Black Memorabilia is derogatory. Caricatured images of Africans and their American descendants were produced on millions of material objects -- ashtrays, games, postcards, detergent boxes, and other common items. These objects distort the bodies and behaviors of Blacks. It may be beneficial to look at the broad categories of people, including your mother, who own anti-Black objects.
There are between 50,000 and 100,000 serious collectors of "Black Memorabilia," including objects with brutally racist connotations. And there is a greater number of Americans who, though not collectors, have at least one object that defames Black people. We have identified seven major categories of collectors. The categories are not mutually exclusive -- some individuals collect for multiple reasons.
Many people collect Black objects because they anticipate that the items will increase in value. Simply put, they hope to make money. In the past mainly White antique dealers and flea market dealers populated this category. In the last 20 years a growing number of Blacks have purchased black collectibles -- including brutally racist items -- in the hope that the items increase in value. In general, speculators/investors will collect any black-themed item that they believe has earning potential.
For these individuals racist collectibles are not central to their collections. For example, an individual who collects Halloween masks from the 1960s may have 700 masks. Their collection is likely to include a dozen Sambo and Coon masks. An individual who collects 1950s comic postcards may have many that portray Black children as "alligator bait." These collectors often dislike the racist objects, but believe they need the objects to complete their collections. Most of these collectors are White.
Nostalgics collect Black-themed objects that remind them of happy times in their past. For example, a generation ago it was common for parents to read Little Black Sambo to their children. The book has obvious racist connotations; however, the nostalgic de-emphasizes the book's racist images and languages and, instead, focuses on the positive experience of sharing time with parents.
Racists collect items to validate their beliefs about African Americans. Their collections are dominated by the most demeaning and vulgar depictions of Blacks. Nostalgics are nostalgic about their personal pasts, racists are nostalgic about America's racial past -- they long for a return to Jim Crow era patterns of race relations. Racists see Blacks as inherently ignorant and immoral. They collect objects that caricature African Americans as stupid, pathologically deviant, buffoons.
These collectors purchase racist items to remove them from the market and prevent others from seeing and being offended by the objects. In the mid-1980s the price of most Black collectibles escalated, especially items with obvious racist connotations. Before the price surge it was common to hear Blacks claim that they purchased racist objects to get them out of the public eye. In some instances the buyer destroyed the item to totally "liberate" it. Today, most of the brutally racist objects sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars; therefore, it is rare to hear of buyers "liberating" items.
These are African Americans who believe that all Black Memorabilia, even the derogatory objects, should be collected and preserved. They do not want to forget slavery and Jim Crow segregation; nor do they want to forget the daily heroism of Black Americans who struggled against racism. Some heritage holders keep their collections private, as personal reminders of past struggles, while some become educators and teach others.
These collectors use anti-Black items as object lessons to teach about historical and contemporary expressions of racism. Many young Americans lack knowledge about the ideas, beliefs and behaviors associated with the Jim Crow era. Educators can use material objects to illustrate the ways that racism permeated American society. Racist objects both shaped and reflected attitudes toward African Americans.
April 2004 Response by David Pilgrim