Question of the Month:

"Black Americana" Merchandise

January 2011

Q:  I am a little disappointed that you seem hell bent on censoring people's rights to sell legal merchandise. What do you gain from keeping a local merchant from selling "offensive" soap? He has the right to sell pieces of American history.

--Pete Scott - Indianapolis, Indiana

A:  I assume you are referring to the recent controversy in Noblesville, Indiana. Gary Dewester, a vendor at a local mall, made national news by selling soap bars with wrappers decorated with anti-Black slurs and caricatured images. He had sold the soap for more than a decade, with little or no attention. That all changed when Kelly Jones-Sharp, a local freelance writer and blogger, saw the soap. She posted this on her blog on November 24:

soap “While Christmas shopping in Noblesville with my sister-in-law, Karen, I happened upon something shocking and sad. A vendor in Logan Village Mall, a location of about 40 shops on the town square, is selling racist soap. “Kolored Kids Soap,” “Spook Soap,” “Coon Chicken Soap” — you get the idea. When I brought this issue to the attention of the women at the counter, I was told they “sell a lot of it,” and that the vendor is aware that “some people” find the soap offensive. (But they were glad I nevertheless purchased items from other vendors.)

That such products exist and ostensibly are popular in our so-called “post-racial” racist society is beyond me. If I were black, the message I would take away from a visit to the mall and to Noblesville is: “We serve whites only.” Under the pretext of “Black Americana,” this stuff is being sold with all the same nostalgia and disregard for humanity as memorabilia about Japanese concentration camps. Unbelievably, you can find a lot of it online. By allowing these products into their midst, the mall owners are culpable, as is the community of Noblesville, for providing legitimacy for racist behavior.” See, http://sharpwordworks.com/blog/.

The story was picked up locally by Kimberly King of WXIN Fox 59, Mary Milz of WTHR Channel 13, and Robert Annis from The Indianapolis Star. When King interviewed Dewester, the stage was set for drama. He defiantly argued that he has the right to sell the merchandise. Dewester, a public defender, was asked about profiting from selling racist objects, his response was as follows: "Racism? Our country was built on racism. If it didn't sell, we wouldn't sell it." He added that many of his customers find the soaps amusing, and that anyone who is offended is too politically correct. When the FOX report aired (see, http://www.fox59.com/videobeta/4878864e-e332-4dcc-8ccb-46baa4d4b206/News/Racist-images-on-bars-of-soap) the soap controversy became an impromtu barometer of local attitudes about race relations, racist merchandise, and political correctness.

There were passionate newspapers editorials, blogs, and dinner table debates. Early on, the tide of public sentiment was anti-Dewester (see, http://www.playahata.com/?p=11040), but later voices supporting Dewester became louder. Jones-Sharp, whose blog first brought the soap to the nation’s attention, was vilified. On her December 9, blog, she angrily wrote:

“Faceless 'someones' were calling me a 'fat hooker,' 'f***ing slut' and 'f***ing crybaby bitch' for standing up against racism and exercising my First Amendment rights to voice my opinion. And since this is my blog and I can write what I want, I could have shot back about what a bunch of p***ies they are. But that’s not what this blog is about. Besides, there’s no point getting into a pissing contest with a bunch of white supremacists who worship David Duke ('white pride, worldwide!'). It’s not as though they’re equipped with rational arguments and informed opinions. For example, one theme from these commenters is that racist behavior is okay because of 'black on white crime.' Sigh.”

King, the FOX reporter, called me after she researched racist objects on the Internet. She sent me a link to the television report and asked me to reflect on the controversy. I told her that Dewester, of course, has the right to sell racist merchandise and consumers have the right to purchase the objects. How could I argue otherwise? The Jim Crow Museum contains thousands of racist objects and most were not donations; we bought them from dealers like Dewester. I must confess that I am often offended by the racist items that I buy; this is evident in this article I wrote, “The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects,” see, http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/collect/. I buy these objects to use as educational tools. I believe that racist objects belong in museums or garbage cans, but I do not want to live in a country that makes selling these items illegal.

I also said to her, “Just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean you should do it. The legal bar is often the low bar.” Many of Dewester’s supporters waxed eloquent about his right to sell soap with racist slurs and caricatured images of Blacks. Yes, dealers have the right to sell racist objects, though I wish they chose not to exercise that right. Dewester is not the only one with rights. Dissenters have the right to criticize him and the mall where the soap was sold. And, they have the right to peaceably demonstrate their displeasure with him selling the soap; although, not surprisingly, the more people “attacked” Dewester, the more soap he sold. Controversy sells. Racism sells.

Noblesville was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold in the 1920s and 1930s, but that hardly makes it unique. There were many cities dominated by the Klan during that time. And, Noblesville had a rigid, thick pattern of racial segregation before the Civil Rights Movement; again, this is hardly unique. Some of Dewester’s critics have pointed to this history and tried to draw a link to the racially offensive soap. This is an unnecessary leap. I have been to many cities in the U.S., and in each city I found merchandise that defamed some racial or ethnic group, especially Africans and their American descendants. I see the soap bars on eBay; I see them in flea markets; I see them in antique malls. They are not authentic relics of the past. However, the images on the soap covers did exist. Some enterprising entrepreneur found old racist images on a postcard, tradecard, or can label, and reproduced them for the soap wrappers. In the Jim Crow Museum we have new clocks that have faces that were reproduced from 1920 postcards. These are new objects, not relics of the past. Well, I take that back, the soap is not old, but the use of racist caricatures and stereotypes to sell objects is an old (and legal) practice — albeit, a distasteful one.

People collect racist objects like the Dewester soap for many reasons. I know a man who collects ashtrays. If he sees an ashtray that he does not have he will buy it, even if it has a picture of a lynching on it. I know this because he showed me such an ashtray. He finds that ashtray repugnant, but he is an “obsessive collector,” and he had to have it. I get that. It does not reflect his values about race relations, at least not directly. There are also people who collect racist objects because they believe these items will appreciate in value. These collectors rarely collect cheap reproductions like the soap; instead, they purchase vintage pieces like “Whites Only” signs. There are people who collect racist objects as a kind of protest, a way of saying to others, “Screw your political correctness. I am free to buy what I want. You don’t tell me what to do.” Apparently, some people purchased soap from Dewester as a way of saying they supported him standing up to political correctness. And, of course, there are people who buy racist objects because they agree with the stereotypical messages that the items represent.

There are people like myself who collect racist objects because we know these objects can be used as catalysts to honest, sometimes painful, discussions about race relations. I suppose one of the biggest lessons that came out of this controversy was that at local (and national) levels, we still don’t know how to talk calmly and intelligently about race. The trick is not to stop talking about race; the trick — and it is starting to look more and more like magic is needed — is to find better ways to talk about race. Maybe I am naïve, but I continue to believe in the triumph of dialogue.

January 2011 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
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