Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Diana Venable does not shy away from the pain of the African-American experience. However, she is not much interested in underlining its darker aspects.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
When public television’s Antiques Roadshow rolled into the convention center the last weekend in June 2001, local collectors crowed. Suddenly San Diego seemed invested, artifact-wise, with the status of a major metropolitan center like Chicago or New York, which happened to be the show’s next stop. For those whose job it is to promote the city, such as board members of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, this was a real coup. Civil War buffs and Dr. Seuss fans would later say this was a dream come true. For collectors of African-American memorabilia, there is a story here within the story.
Venable’s postcards offer a view of a benign world in which racial humor happens to reign.
Antiques Roadshow is seen weekly by over 15 million viewers, and after five seasons it currently ranks as public TV’s most popular offering. The show introduces audiences to local antiquarians, visits historical societies, and displays native artifacts and memorabilia of a community’s earliest settlers. Roadshow’s big draw, however, and to which most of the hour is devoted, are the appraisal tables and the hubbub there. The history of an old portrait, the fineness of period furniture, the pale translucence that distinguishes one piece of quality glass from a look-alike fake, the exquisite silver work of a brooch — here all is revealed. This revelation opens up a discourse on beauty, remarkable for its being derived from the dusty detritus recovered from local attics and garages. And what is better, revelation includes a price tag — not the vulgar gazillions for hitting the lottery, but a nice bit of change with a tasteful antiquarian twist.
1930s postcard. Among the thousands of items she owns, by her count Venable has 11 Mister Cream of Wheats, 20 Aunt Jemimas, and as many Black Sambos.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
On the TV screen, Antiques Roadshow appears folksy and low-key, but this casual look is achieved at a cost of millions. The show’s summer production season, a trundling crisscrossing of the country, is a massive endeavor that involves, in each city and for just one day, the coordinated efforts of 70 or more appraisers, a 30-member technical crew, an administrative staff of 20, a dozen or more security and venue personnel, and about 100 volunteers. Roadshow tapes in the summer, then edits the material down into hourlong segments for the upcoming viewing season.
About her postcards of blacks drawn to look moronic as they slaver over juicy slices of watermelon, she says this is history.
“No Tickets. No Objects. No Show.” This is the rule for those who wish to attend the June taping. So picture this: when tickets for Roadshow are made available on May 19, a hypothetical couple we’ll call Jim and Joyce Goodfellow go online (where transactions are made faster than by phone) and successfully manage to order their free tickets. (Up to four tickets are allowed per household.) Six weeks later, on the morning of June 30, they cart a couple of things down to the convention center. Though Jim is dressed, say, in a colorful Hawaiian shirt, and Joyce is in a neat cotton blouse and skirt, they look pleasingly ordinary, as if they’d stepped out of central casting. The Roadshow’s tiny lipstick camera (named for its size and perfect for picking up fine detail) hones in on what the Goodfellows have set on the table in front of the handsomely suited appraiser. Whether it is a piece of knobby furniture, a frayed quilt, or a multicolored set of Fiesta ware, its very presence on camera endows the object with the magical mystery of potential.
“For some, they embrace a fascination with an American yesterday, a before–Civil Rights era when it was thought proper to decorate homes with cute and cruel depictions of the ‘other.’"
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The fluorescent lights and Fresnels give the effect of bright daylight. One of the show’s seven cameras dollies in. The Goodfellows are experiencing their 15 minutes of fame. The appraiser invites them to share how they’d come upon the object. They have been prompted to be clear and concise, and are. Then the appraiser gives a brief description of its manufacturing history, its rarity, and what similar objects, but in worse (or better) condition, are currently priced at. Finally comes the awaited moment. The specialist asks the Question:
“And do you have any idea of its value?”
The appraiser has already estimated the value of the object. Age, rarity, manufacturer’s mark, and refurbishing history are just a few of the variables he will draw upon and that can dramatically increase the value or send it crashing through the floor. Suppose it is a set of old baseball cards picked up at a yard sale (but at the moment the market is flooded with old baseball cards); the Lalique vase was discovered in a thrift store (but is a knockoff import from Taiwan); the diamond pendant, a family heirloom, was left by Aunt Ruth (but she secretly replaced the jewel with cut glass). Tiny tragedies like these unfold on the show.
Yet the Goodfellows have signed releases, undergone quick powdering in the greenroom to make sure their foreheads don’t shine, been outfitted with wireless microphones and transmitter packs, and then set in front of a camera and asked to talk. And what for? Just to be told that what they own and prize, and what they dream will allow them to redo their kitchen, professionally landscape their yard, maybe even vacation in Hawaii during high season is, technically speaking, worthless?
The answer is yes. Because TV, even public television, is an entertainment medium. And in entertainment, sometimes it’s the gladiator who wins, but more often it’s the lion.
“And do you have any idea of its value?” This question invites the vision of sudden, hoped-for wealth or the spectacle of a rube’s disappointment unfolding before millions. If the appraiser has always known the answer, the viewing audience also knows a thing or two. They know, for example, that winners are supposed to look stunned and ill-prepared for their good fortune (a version of the beauty pageant weep-and-wave), and they know that losers who don’t know how to lose leave a lousy aftertaste. If Jim and Joyce Goodfellow discover that what they are sitting on is not a gold mine but an anthill, they’d better be prepared to stare unflinchingly into the camera and say it wasn’t the money anyway, it’s the sentimental value that counts. It is a lie, of course, but that’s how the game is played.
“No, we have no idea,” whisper Jim and Joyce, and wait.
Because of TV’s dread of dead air, that black hole of dumb extended silence, the torturous wait the Goodfellows must suffer will extend only to the length of two heartbeats. Yet it is in pursuit of that heartbeat pause, so crucial to Antiques Roadshow’s success, that the crew, preparing for a sixth season, set up shop at the San Diego Convention Center on Friday night.
Diana Venable is a collector. She lives in a gray ranch-style home on a quiet street in Oak Park, an attractive enclave in East San Diego. The place looks ordinary enough, but a rescue operation has been going on here. Venable has helped to save time’s face, its black face. We met a few days before Christmas 2000. It would never cross her mind to make it down to the convention center six months later. She does not need an appraiser to tell her the worth of any of her collection. She knows.
Renee Johnson writes in the February 2000 issue of Antique Trader that African-American memorabilia is a vast domain. Whether salt-and-pepper shakers, postcards, cookie jars, or canvases prized as fine art — each captures images of black culture in America. Johnson quotes Barbara Mauzy, a dealer: “Black memorabilia is extremely popular right now. More than 1000 auctions of black collectibles take place each week on eBay, the giant online auction company.”
But just as the interest in black memorabilia has been rising, so has the controversy. Some view these items as part of a unique heritage and feel that they should be preserved as historical artifacts. Others think items depicting African-Americans in a negative light should not be sold. According to Mauzy, some people buy black collectibles to destroy them and thus keep them from the market.
“But they don’t merit destroying because they are a piece of history,” says Mauzy, who reports an unwillingness to traffic in certain items. “Everyone has to draw his or her own line. Some things are acceptable and some we find offensive.”
I’d heard that Venable had a large collection of black memorabilia and called to ask if I could see it. Venable appeared on the other side of the screen door, at 54 a boyishly trim woman. She was dressed in a tailored white cotton long-sleeved shirt, dark slacks, loafers, and small gold-hoop earrings that she called her no-bother “uniform.” She abhors vexation and pretension. Smiling, she unlatched the screen door. Her gaze was direct and hinted at the peremptory. It was instantly clear that she does not suffer fools gladly, but like a mother with a newborn, Diana Venable is a sucker for anyone who wants to see her collection. She led the way into her house.
Antiques Roadshow is like a blockbuster museum exhibit on wheels. From June through August 2001, the show traveled to Tucson, Miami, San Diego, New York City, New Orleans, and Indianapolis. For the San Diego taping, 6000 tickets went on sale on May 19 at noon. By 12:35, the tickets were gone. Two thousand one hundred seconds. Collectors from all over the country, including a few unable to get tickets for their local Tucson or Miami show, reserved a spot for the San Diego show. But plenty went ticketless, and six weeks later, early on the morning of the taping, some of them appeared outside the convention center looking for scalpers. They found them.
Tickets were available for six different appraisal sessions: 8:00 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2:00 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. Although ticket holders were instructed to arrive just half an hour before their assigned time, lines formed hours ahead, and a kind of mini-jam remained in place for much of the day.
There was a jam of sorts in the two glass-shelved cases that stood against one wall in Diana Venable’s kitchen, but unlike at the convention center where blacks standing in line were outrageously outnumbered, in the display case they were well represented; indeed, there was not a white face to be seen. In one case, among a neat clutter of black figurines, I took inventory: (1 small can) Black & White Skin Whitener; (1 small can) Sweet Georgia Brown’s Hair Dressing Pomade; (1 package) Aunt Jemima’s Waffles; (2 books of matches): Cotton Patch Restaurant (2720 Midway Drive), Golden West Hotel (between Third and Fourth on G Street); (1 bottle) Warrenton Rum Coke; (1 ashtray) Dinah’s Pancake Chicken House (on the Las Vegas Strip); (1 cookie tin) Rum Creoles (“A toasted confection of the Tropical Flavors with fine imported Liqueurs”); (1 ointment bottle) Black Magic Leaf Lustre; (1 small cardboard box) Solid Head Eyelets; (1 jar) Lucky Brown Pressing Oil; (1 small tin) Nigroids (throat and breath mints from England); (1 small box) Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice; (1 small box) Solid Dust Twins Washing Powder. The products were emblazoned with black women, black butlers, pickaninnies, all smiling.
Beside the cases, covering the wall, were signs on which were shown the faces of other black people, many plump and pleasing, with rosy cheeks and white teeth. These images were attached to items as diverse as Florida oranges and New Jersey taxi rides. The Internet and dot-coms are today’s codes for contemporary priorities (i.e., information speedily delivered); not long ago, a happy colored face was a symbol for honest advertising, country values, friendly service, and assured quality.
“I think they’re all beautiful,” said Venable.
Among the thousands of items she owns, by her count Venable has 11 Mister Cream of Wheats, 20 Aunt Jemimas, and as many Black Sambos.
Her three-bedroom house is so jammed with odds and ends in display cases and boxes, tacked onto walls, folded onto chairs, or dropped in corners that the visitor, with room only to turn around and gawk, finds a chair and stays put. In her garage, piled high as a tall man, are dozens more boxes, each bursting with memorabilia waiting to be cataloged.
The mind boggles.
As for the value of individual pieces in her collection, the Johnson article in the Antique Trader includes a price sampler for comparison purposes: Candy box, cardboard, “Whitman’s Pickaninny Peppermints—Chocolate Covered,” 23/8-oz., black children’s heads on narrow, long box, early 20th century, $150–$200. Cleanser box, cardboard, “Fairbank’s Gold Dust Washing Powder,” black and orange, ca. 1920s, 4" by 6", $200. Doorstop, cast iron, figural black man carrying a satchel and looking over his shoulder, Hubley, 51/8" wide, 7H" high, $950. “Alabama Baby,” cloth doll, made by Ella Smith in Roanoke, Ala., 1904–1924, called “Alabama Indestructible Dolls,” available in black and white, 13H" high, (sold at auction in 1992), $6090. “Darktown Battery,” cast-iron mechanical bank, three black baseball players including a pitcher and catcher, J&E Stevens Co., $3400.
On Friday afternoon, volunteers enlisted mostly from KPBS-TV and the Chubb Group of Insurers on West Broadway were led through a training session and given handouts that listed essential functions, production priorities, how people were to be treated. The next morning, volunteers wearing Roadshow slate-blue polo shirts were stationed all over Halls A and B of the convention center. The volunteers at the front doors welcomed people and checked tickets. They handed out information flyers, pointed participants in the right direction, and answered questions. A couple of volunteers, on the lookout for antique guns, guided their owners toward the security gun check. Volunteers moved and maintained the lines, sprayed squeaky wheels with WD-40, ripped tickets, asked people to unwrap their items, and were general troubleshooters. At the “triage table,” volunteers guided people to the generalists who assigned them to the appropriate appraisers. Triage runners carried maps of the set and escorted people to the appraisers’ tables. The experience was like passing through airport security the day before Thanksgiving.
Across the huge concrete lakes of Halls A and B, where blankets hung from the ceiling to muffle sound, locals, escorted by volunteers, steered loaded wheelbarrows and carried cardboard boxes, grocery bags, and items wrapped in blankets like so many immigrants at Ellis Island.
Diana Venable moved to San Diego from Marin County, an upscale community in Northern California, in 1976. After working eight years as an accountant, she decided to go into business for herself as an estate liquidator. She admits she knew next to nothing about estate liquidation.
“But when I was seven, I’d watch the junk man going down our street on trash days. He’d drive this truck down the street, jump out to forage in trash cans, deposit whatever he found in his truck, then disappear until the next week. I enjoyed keeping a lookout for him. Anyway, one Sunday afternoon, my father took us driving along the exclusive Main Line, outside of Philadelphia, and I was in the back seat gazing at these huge houses set far back from the street when suddenly I see the junk man’s truck! There it was, parked at the door of this Colonial-style home, at the crest of this great sweep of beautifully landscaped yard.” Venable has told this story before and pauses before dramatically hitting the punch line: “I knew then that there is something in junk.”
What the junk man did not tell Venable were the hazards of collecting. For the serious collector — and she is surely one — “picking,” as collecting is sometimes called, has the power to consume the picker. Enough ignitable material under the right conditions will suddenly undergo spontaneous combustion, and the collector, at a certain but unknown point in her collecting history, is in danger of suddenly finding herself immolated, lost and afire. This is the case with Diana Venable.
Her pals in the antique business include Dave McPhetter of Zac’s Attic and Randy and Jim, owners of Mission Gallery. As an estate liquidator, she runs a thriving one-woman business, D&D Estate Sales. She is a member of the Rotary Club and volunteers her time at Wilson Middle School to mentor students interested in business. She is a busy woman with a full life. With limited time and with neither wealth nor family connections, she has managed to collect thousands of pieces of African-American memorabilia, artifacts that embody ongoing themes in U.S. cultural history.
Her collection of books includes first editions of Martin Luther King’s 1964 Why We Can’t Wait, and Mississippi Black Paper by Reinhold Niebuhr and Hodding Carter III, 1965; autobiographies (Ethel Waters: To Me It’s Wonderful, 1972) and biographies (The Story of Stevie Wonder, James Haskins, 1976). She has books that are provocatively titled (You’ve Had Worse Things in Your Mouth, a cookbook by Billi Gordon, 1985), an autographed first edition of Angela Davis’s 1974 autobiography, as well as a first edition of Taylor Branch’s 1989 Pulitzer Prize–winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. She owns the 23rd edition of Mary Moore Bremer’s 1968 New Orleans Creole Recipes, the unauthorized 1989 biography of Diana Ross (Call Her Miss Ross), and the affirmatively titled Yes I Can autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr. (1965). Her oldest book is the 1793 edition of Adolphus Zimza’s Slavery or The Times, and perhaps her favorite is her 1943 copy of Top Hats and Tom-Toms by Elizabeth Dearmin Furbay about American blacks in Liberia.
For monetary value, again the price sampler:
Recipe booklet, “Aunt Jemima,” color cover with picture of Aunt Jemima and title “Tempting New Aunt Jemima Pancake ’n Waffle Recipes,” 1950s, $15–$20. Cookbook, Dixie Dishes, by Marion W. Flexner, 1941, dark red cloth covers with a bust of a black Mammy, 73/4" high, $20. Children’s book, Little Black Sambo, Rand McNally Book, hard cover, 1955, color cover, $125. A Time magazine with Martin Luther King featured as “Man of the Year,” January 3, 1964, $35. An Ebony magazine with Dr. and Coretta King on the cover, September 1968, $25. A Life magazine with Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet on the cover, April 15, 1966, $25.
Venable has over 500 books and magazines. As it happens, Without Sanctuary, recently published, is one book she does not have.
Regular viewers of the Roadshow become familiar with a variety of terms: “limited edition,” “Art Deco” and “Art Nouveau,” “Americana,” “daguerreotype,” “patina,” “ephemera,” and “finial.” But two words, “memorabilia” and “collectible,” are often interchanged and thus misused. “Memorabilia” is defined as things that are “remarkable and worthy of remembrance,” things that “stir recollection.” Collectibles were never utilitarian. Memorabilia were originally manufactured for a purpose while collectibles were manufactured for no purpose but to be collected. Black memorabilia is a term that covers a large variety of items. It includes anything to do with black life in the United States. If an item features an image of an African-American or someone of the black race, it is considered black memorabilia.
Venable’s raft of postcards includes one of a gray-haired old man next to an animal in a tree and is inscribed “A coon with a coon.” In another, a woman stands on a country road beside a burro, both equally, preposterously laden. There are cards of grinning black children with uncombed fright wigs for hair and cartoon figures with huge lips and squashed noses. These together help to explain that while a postcard is meant for sending, a material medium by which communication is maintained, the image on its front side also carries a story both the sender and receiver recognize. Today Venable’s postcards may seem relatively harmless, more in the nature of jokes with punch lines out of fashion and generally regarded as in questionable taste. (According to the price sampler: Postcard, color comic scene, “Darktown Dames,” art by R.F. Outcault, Darktown Series No. 76, group of black women gossiping, Ulman Mfg. Co., No. 1892, $25. Postcard, “Just We Two — In Our Little Canoe!,” a comical black couple in a small canoe, $12–$15.)
While Venable’s postcards offer a view of a benign world in which racial humor happens to reign, in the world of African-American memorabilia, they are the flip side of a horrific Hieronymus Bosch spectacle.
In Without Sanctuary (2000), James Allen has published his collection of postcards. They are photographs of the lynchings of men and women, most of whom are black and whose deaths (unlike those of the whites) were often preceded by their being stripped, whipped, mutilated, and burned. In the endpapers of the book, a white man is shown pulling a chain to adjust Jesse Washington, who rests on kindling like a slab of meat. Washington’s was but one of 4742 known lynchings of blacks in America between 1882 and 1968.
When Washington, who had “confessed” to killing a white woman, tried to climb the hot chain to escape the hotter flames, his fingers were cut off and distributed as souvenirs. For a crowd of 15,000, the souvenirs did not go far. Inscribed on a postcard made of the event was the following: “This is the Barbecue we had last night. [M]y picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe.”
Leon Litwack, in his introduction to Without Sanctuary, quotes an on-the-spot commentator at the lynching of Thomas Brooks in Fayette County, Tennessee:
“Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching… Picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched Negro. Women and children were there by the score.”
Two years later, in 1917, in Abbeville, North Carolina, a respectable black farmer named Anthony Crawford was lynched. Mr. Crawford’s well-established respectability prompted one witness to say this about his unexpectedly terrible end:
“I reckon the crowd wouldn’t have been so bloodthirsty, only it’s been three years since they had any fun with the niggers, and it seems though they jest have to have a lynching every so often.”
The image I find most haunting is that of Frank Embree. Shown in three photographs, in the first he has been stripped, his handcuffed hands placed to cover his genitals. The fact that he stares directly, with dignity, down at the camera is even more extraordinary given the evidence in the second photograph, where he has been forced to turn around and one sees the crisscross of deep lacerations and open, bleeding wounds that cover him from neck to ankle. In the third photograph, Embree is shown hung, his lower body wrapped in a coarse blanket. The three photographs depicting Embree’s torture and hanging were at one time laced together with a twisted purple thread, so as to unfold like a map. In these photos (and many of those in which black men are shown lynched) the lower body, the genital area, is shown covered as a nod to public decency.
For me, it is the image of Embree; for the authors, it is the grotesque figure in the postcard found on the half-title page. The description in the book reads, “The bludgeoned body of an African American male, propped in a rocking chair, blood-spattered clothes, white and dark paint applied to face, circular disks glued to cheeks, cotton glued to face and head, shadow of man using rod to prop up the victim’s head.”
The undated image recalls that of the bearded, happy-go-lucky Uncle Remus character in Disney’s (1946) Song of the South. The authors of Without Sanctuary write: “What white racists were unable to accomplish through intimidation, repressive laws, and social codes — namely, to mold the African American male into the myth of the emasculated ‘good ole darkey’ — they here accomplished by violence and costuming.”
Writing for the February 2000 issue of Antique Trader, Mary Rose Johnston notes, “Interestingly, the more derogatory the portrayal of the black race in an item, the higher the price it commands.” James Allen reports that as word spread of his project to collect postcards depicting lynchings, the prices at which owners offered to sell him theirs escalated. To meet their demands, Allen was sometimes forced to request foundation support to cover the cost.
Diana Venable does not shy away from the pain of the African-American experience. However, she is not much interested in underlining its darker aspects. Collectors must, inevitably, limit their sphere of procurement. Venable collects anything about or by African-Americans and sometimes finds herself with a West Indian artifact, the work of an African artist, or a book written by a British black. If she errs, it is toward inclusion rather than exclusion. Her approach is low-key. An antique dealer might call and recommend a piece, or she earmarks items as they pass through her hands in the course of an estate liquidation.
For those who make their living from collecting, African-American memorabilia is a burgeoning market newly fueled by growing numbers of prosperous blacks seeking to own cultural icons — “Colored Only” signs, slave shackles, etc. — that were used, historically, to contain and demean them. Venable is quick to describe herself as an amateur. She has not the specialist’s eye educated for the fake metal or the refurbished wood, nor the appraiser’s mannered presentation. About her postcards of nappy-headed pickaninnies, wretchedly dressed slaves bent over cotton in fields that stretch to the horizon, and blacks drawn to look moronic as they slaver over juicy slices of watermelon, she says this is history.
Venable gathers widely, yet with a purpose. She hopes one day to house her collection in what she calls “The Museum of Positive Colors,” and she has created a foundation as an aid in reaching that end. Its mission statement reads as a powerful affirmation of cultural diversity. The statement ends, “The Museum of Positive Colors Foundation is committed to promoting education, respect, culture, tolerance, and peace.”
Venable’s attitude, like her approach, smacks pleasingly of the Main Line patrician. Her father was a research chemist. One of seven children, he was 14 years old when his father died; yet all the young Venables went on to become Ph.D.s and M.D.s.
“The first one went to school, graduated, then sent money back for the next one, and the next one came along and did the same,” she explained. “They helped each other, and the only word one was not allowed to use was ‘can’t.’ ”
This is Venable’s creed. It is different from the idea that guides the collecting habits of Clarence Brown and his wife Freddie. The couple arrived in San Diego from Little Rock, Arkansas, 40 years ago and today live in a commodious ranch-style house in the Linda Vista area, overlooking Mission Valley. They collect strictly for themselves and enjoy displaying what they have. The walls of their hallway and foyer are covered with attractive black images gathered from antique stores, yard sales, and library sales. Their living room is peopled with figurines that stand in an illuminated glass case. The guest bedroom is jammed with images on the walls and shelves, while dozens of black dolls lie propped on the bed. A village of African heads and sculptures cover a credenza.
Freddie pointed to the pile of framed pictures stacked in the corner. “Collecting just has a way of getting away from you.”
From the kitchen, Clarence Brown agreed. He is a handsome man knee-deep in his 60s, but he looks a decade younger; she is a brown-skinned woman with beautiful steel-gray hair. Clarence Brown, retired from the Navy and a former chef, still likes to try his hand at cooking. (I can attest to the success of his mouthwatering pecan and sweet potato pies.) The Browns were teenagers in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the mid-century period of desegregation. Their love of collecting black artifacts has a Southern flavor, a smooth, easygoing delight that is different from Diana Venable’s, with her vigorous Eastern attitude. Yet joy in African-American memorabilia and collectibles brings them both to a place of warm consensus.
Roadshow experts are available for Americana and Indian, Arms and Militaria, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Arts and Crafts, Books and Ephemera, Collectibles and Memorabilia, Folk Art, Furniture, Glass, Jewelry, Paintings, Photographs, Pottery and Porcelain, Prints and Drawings, and more. In all, there are 20 categories, some of which are broken down into more specific divisions. The furniture, arts, and glass categories are especially popular and have more than one appraisal table. But there was only one raspberry-red sign printed with the words “Black Memorabilia.”
Writing an introduction to Black Americana: Price Guide (1996), Julian Bond, famous for cofounding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, describes himself as part of a large and growing group that collects black memorabilia, “the ugly and the beautiful.” We collectors, he says, have many motives for our obsession.
“For some, they embrace a fascination with an American yesterday, a before–Civil Rights era when it was thought proper to decorate homes with cute and cruel depictions of the ‘other’ — the grinning caricatures and twisted bodies of our fellow Americans of African descent. They remind today’s collector of what was, of a world where law and custom rigidly divided black and white, a world ruled by the ideology of white supremacy. In that world, non-whites were figures of derision and humor — frequently obese and always servile, happy childlike creatures who gobbled watermelon or danced and fished and gambled and perpetually reminded their owners who they were — they were not Negroes.”
Bond says that the presence of black memorabilia on his shelves steels him against the past. As he passes by, he writes, they shout at him. “Look at me! I am not what I seem.” Indeed. Rather, they are what others have made them out to be.
Bond writes that in America, “Who you are not defines who you are.”
Bond is one of a growing number of celebrity-collectors of African-American memorabilia. Others include comedians Bill Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg, singer Anita Baker, actress Cicely Tyson, TV host Oprah Winfrey, musician Branford Marsalis, poet Nikki Giovanni, writer Gloria Naylor, and Cathy Hughes, businesswoman and owner of a dozen Radio One radio stations.
Philip Merrill has worked with a number of these collectors by finding and appraising items for them. Merrill, president of Nanny Jack, Inc., and his partner “Pou” Aiono were at the convention center on June 30, sitting at the table marked “Black Memorabilia.” He works with anyone — celebrities, grade-school children, senior citizens — who will help broaden the base of those educated to the significance of black memorabilia.
The fresh-faced 39year-old recalled speaking at an Urban League function in Baltimore’s historical Orchard Street Church in 1994. “I’d brought too many artifacts to show, but the audience was so deeply touched that they didn’t care. They wanted more and more. That was when I realized that this is my calling, my ministry. I help to make history come alive.”
Besides appearing on Roadshow, Merrill is a charter member of Sothebys.com, the online component of the prestigious auction house. He consults with museums and is in a collaborative effort with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Discovery Channel, Maryland Historical Society, and Maryland Public Television. Recently, Merrill opened the Unity Cultural Center in West Baltimore. It will house a portion of his 30,000-item collection, plus offer exhibits, tours, seminars, drama, music, and appraisals. The cultural center serves as headquarters for Nanny Jack & Co., the umbrella company for the various enterprises that Merrill founded in 1994, the year of his epiphanic moment.
Unity Cultural Center, a three-story structure built in the 1940s, has dark hardwood floors and a dozen or so spaces christened with names like the Slavery Impressions and Black Baltimore rooms. It is a long way from the cigar boxes and shoe boxes he used as a youngster to hold his collections of marbles and baseball cards. He graduated to newspapers and hubcaps, piling his finds under his bed and in closets. In his extended Baltimore family, his great-grandmother Gertrude Jackson, widely known as “Nanny Jack” and revered for her skills as a midwife, served as matriarch. Merrill remembers a number of prized curios that she kept out of reach on a shelf. He was particularly fascinated by the figure, made of metal, of a fat child sitting on a commode. But it was not until Alex Haley’s popular slave narrative Roots was broadcast on television in 1977 that Merrill made a connection with how an object might be an artifact and thus help illuminate the African-American experience.
“Slave documents, rare books, diplomas from old black colleges, the photographs of James Van Der Zee, Addison Scurlock, and Augustus Washington…” Merrill rattles off names. “These are all pieces of the puzzle, historical artifacts that teach us about our past.”
He credits Antiques Roadshow for changing the face of antiquary and, perhaps, helping to move the bar up on African-American memorabilia.
“Not too long ago, black cultural artifacts were all assigned as ‘collectibles,’ but now they’re listed as both ‘collectibles’ and ‘memorabilia.’ ”
Black memorabilia has also developed crossover appeal. For example, a baseball signed by Jackie Robinson may find its place in either black or sports memorabilia. The same goes for books or, say, pottery.
“It is all in the object,” instructs Merrill. A graduate of Loyola College, pedagogy comes easy for him. When he gives talks, he always carries an object with him. When meeting with the elderly at a senior center, he might display a period quilt, or if speaking before a group of educators, a sure discussion-opener is one of the ghost-white, crisply starched, hooded Ku Klux Klan robes that he has in his collection.
Sonia Bontemps, a member of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc., a national group devoted to the preservation of black history, genealogy, and culture, says, “What Philip is doing gives me hope.”
The relatively recent phenomenon of African-Americans collecting the memorabilia in which they were adversely depicted offers a case of both history reclaimed and culture redefined. Here was a question of identities, a war of attribution, in which at stake was the right of an abused minority to take from the dominant majority the assumed right of definition.
That red-hot kiln in which many of the African-American images came first to be fired, the stuff that feeds much of today’s memorabilia hobbyists, was the Civil War. Northerners, having won the war at great cost, incorporated the abolitionists’ perspective into their understanding of American nationality: slavery was evil, a great blot that had to be excised to realize the full promise of the Declaration of Independence. At the outset, some white Southerners (former slaveholders among them) accepted this view. They not only conceded that slavery had burdened the South as it had burdened the nation, but they declared themselves glad to be rid of it. Yet not long after the war, in the late 19th Century, after Reconstruction collapsed and demands for sectional reconciliation mounted, the portrayal of slavery changed. Now white Northerners and white Southerners began to depict slavery as a benign (and even benevolent) institution. They contrasted the violence and enmity of the postwar period with an Eden in which happy slaves frolicked in the service of indulgent masters. From this paradise-like vision derives the images of happy mammies cooking up tasty meals and minstrels singing the hours away.
This falsely romanticized representation of slavery was put forth to mask assumptions of privilege and white supremacy — attitudes that, however veiled, remain in wide circulation today.
Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens, writing in the Augusta Daily Constitutionalist (March 30, 1861), stated baldly that the 1776 proposition on which the United States was founded — that all men are created equal — was false. Stephens honored the Confederacy for having been “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordinate to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”
For Charles Dew (his remarks compiled in Apostles for Disunion, University Press of Virginia, 2001), the question of slavery versus nonslavery was a conflict between economic life and death. “The South cannot exist without African slavery.” The choices were simple: “We must either submit to degradation and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede…”
In the middle of the war, in September 1863, a cavalry lieutenant, William Nugent, writing to his wife (My Dear Nellie: The Civil War Letters of William L. Nugent to Eleanor Smith Nugent, University Press of Mississippi, 1977), affirmed that the country without slave labor would be wholly worthless. “We can only live & exist by that species of labor: and hence I am willing to continue the fight to the last.”
However, the economic argument for dissolution of the Union was soon attached to well-rehearsed racial fears (themselves born earlier to justify human bondage). Secessionists claimed that if the South stayed in the Union, there would be black governors, black legislatures, black juries, “black everything.” Sons and daughters of the South would be required to associate “with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality.” Georgia’s commissioner to Virginia wrote that if Southern states stayed in the Union, white men would be consigned “to assassinations and their wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”
And then the war ended, and the rhetoric took two directions. Writing their memoirs, Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, sought to salvage as much honor and respectability as they could from their lost cause and set to work to purge the Confederacy of any association with the now dead and discredited institution of human bondage. In their postwar views, both men stuck to the same line: Southern states had seceded not to protect slavery but to vindicate state sovereignty. This argument for “state sovereignty,” regularly trotted out in the course of contemporary political debates, is one direction postwar rhetoric took.
The second is discussed in the introduction to The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (2000). Gary Gallagher, the author, writes that many white Southerners emerging from the Civil War remained candid about the racial ideology that sustained the Confederacy. For example, Edward Pollard, wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner, wrote that the war had ended slavery but had done nothing to prove an assumption of Negro equality. “This new cause — or rather the true question of the war revived — is the supremacy of the white race.” In 1890, a Confederate veteran, a former captain in the 7th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, echoed Pollard: “We fought for the supremacy of the white race in America.”
This attitude is still held, with tragic consequences:
In May 1999, three young whites who were known to have earlier espoused support of white supremacy beat, stripped, and spray-painted James Byrd, 49, a disabled former vacuum-cleaner salesman, then chained him to the back of a pickup truck. Byrd was then dragged along a three-mile stretch of blacktop, alive and, according to the pathologist’s report, likely conscious of what was happening even as his body parts were torn away. Death came when the body slipped into a culvert and struck the sharp edge of a metal flood-control pipe. This murder was so exceptionally cruel that a local spokesman for the Klan was prompted to say that nobody deserves to die that way.
In letters written from prison, John William King, 25, the first white man in Texas in modern times sentenced to die for killing a black man, described himself as “the hero of the day.” He said it was a “rush” to kill Byrd. “I’m still licking my lips for more.”
But race in the United States is a fabrication originally designed to meet economic ends and remains today a useful means of driving the economic machine. Poor whites like John William King, who make up the majority of declared white supremacists, have the name of “white,” but share in little or none of the middle-class lifestyle that the name is thought to entitle. They have undergone the experience that Thandeka, in her book Learning to Be White (1999), calls “white shame.” Failing to achieve economically what their racial identity promises, these poor whites find themselves compared to those whom they’ve been trained to despise. Disregarded on economic terms by their own racial group, for these have-nots the white supremacist agenda serves to mollify by ignoring the realities of economic class and instead arguing solutions that are racially defined.
If, then, much of the imagery of post–Civil War African-American memorabilia, itself ranging from the saccharine to the scurrilous, derives from the variety of humiliating depictions of blacks, these must be understood as techniques by which white supremacy was underscored. The manufacturing of Aunt Jemima rag dolls, the firing of porcelain pickaninny figurines, and the publication of musical song sheets (Venable’s musical-song-sheet collection includes “By the Watermelon Vine,” “If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon,” “I Love to Hear a Darkie’s Song,” “The Picaninny’s Paradise,” and “Coon-Coon-Coon”) would seem a harmless enough activity. But these were but one arm of a national effort to subordinate a people already demonized by their earlier condition as slaves. It was a circular argument in which blacks were held to be inferior (lazy, brutish, etc.) because they had been slaves, and they had been slaves because they were inferior (lazy, brutish, etc.). After the postwar move toward equality failed with the collapse of the Reconstruction movement, the former slaves had few means by which to present their case. Over the last century, the historical view of slavery has undergone revision. Just as historians can be found who deny the Jewish holocaust, there are historians who deny that violence — an ongoing and brutal spilling of blood — was endemic to the institution of slavery. Fortunately, we have the intervention spawned by the Great Depression.
Slave narratives had been collected in the 1920s. With the creation of the New Deal’s Federal Writer’s Project, the work was continued and the material archived. This has proved a shot in the arm for those interested in black memorabilia.
At Fisk University in Nashville, Southern University in Baton Rouge, and Kentucky State University in Frankfort, historians initiated projects to interview former slaves. Then, between 1936 and 1938, project-sponsored interviewers in 17 states collected the reminiscences of thousands of former slaves. Some of those reminiscences found publication and, like a movie’s musical score, form the sound-frame by which to view African-American memorabilia.
The 1998 publication Remembering Slavery (edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller) includes hundreds of slave narratives. For some of the former slaves, these accounts were given at what they thought to be considerable risk. As one man said, “Some white folks might want to put me back in slavery if I tells how we was used in slavery time…” In 1935, besides the 15 recorded lynchings for which no one was prosecuted, and any number of unrecorded ones, the prisons and jails were populated with blacks whose only crime was insolence (what might be called talking back, or speaking up).
My name am William Colbert and I’se fum Jawja. I was bawn in 1844 on my massa’s plantation in Fort Valley. My massa’s name was Jim Hodison. At one time he had 165 of us niggers…
“Nawsuh, he warn’t good to none of us niggers. All de niggers ’roun’ hated to be bought by him kaze he wuz so mean. When he waz too tired to whup us he had de overseer do it; and de overseer wuz meaner dan de massa. But, Mister, de peoples wuz de same as dey is now. Dere was good uns and bad uns. I jus’ happened to belong to a bad un. One day I remembers my brother, January wuz cotched ober seein’ a gal on de next plantation. He had a pass but de time on it done gib out. Well, suh, when de massa found out dat he wuz a hour late, he got as mad as a hive of bees. So when brother January he come home, de massa took down his long mule skinner and tied him wid a rope to a pine tree. He strip’ his shirt off and said:
“ ‘Now, nigger. I’m goin’ to teach you some sense.’
“Wid dat he started layin’ on de lashes. January was a big, fine lookin’ nigger, de finest I ever seed. He wuz jus’ four years older dan me, an’ when de massa begin a beatin’ him, January neber said a word. De massa got madder and madder kaze he couldn’t make January holla.
“ ‘What’s de matter wid you, nigger?’ he say. ‘Don’t it hurt?’
“January, he neber said nothin’, and de massa keep a beatin’ till little streams of blood started flowin’ down January’s chest, but he neber holler. His lips wuz a quiverin’ and his body wuz a shakin’, but his mouf it neber open; and all de while I sat on my mammy’s and pappy’s steps a cryin’. De niggers wuz all gathered about and some uv ’em couldn’t stand it; dey hadda go inside dere cabins. Atter while, January, he couldn’t stand it no longer hisself, and he say in a hoarse loud whisper:
“ ‘Massa! Massa! have mercy on dis poor nigger.’ ”
A second account is from a woman:
“About the worst thing ever I see, though, it was, oh, it was a slave woman at Louisburg who had been sold off from a three-week-old baby, and she was being marched to New Orleans. She had walked till she was, oh, about give out, and so weak, weak enough to fall into the middle of the road. She was chained to twenty or thirty other slaves, and they stopped to rest in the shade of a big old oak while speculators et their dinner. The slaves ain’t had no dinner.
“And as I pass by, this woman begs me in God’s name for a drink of water. Oh, I gives it to her, too. I ain’t never been so sorry for nobody. It was, it was oh, the month of August, and the sun was, oh, bearing down hot on the slaves and their drivers, and when they leave the shade, they walk for a little piece, and this woman fall out. Fall out. She dies right there at the side of the road, dead, just dead, right there. And right there they buries her, cussing and they telling me about losing money on her. Oh, Lord, Jesus, Lord. Lord have mercy.”
Philip Merrill, sitting at the Black Memorabilia table in the convention center, said much of the story is found in the object.
“So much of it is there, if you know where to look.”
Bill Mather is a handsome light-skinned black man somewhere in his 30s. In line at the convention center, he held a salt-and-pepper set made in the form of black heads. In New Orleans, he would fit the description of “Creole”; in much of South America, his looks would mark him as a mulatto. In San Diego, however, as Scott Malcomson explains in One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (2000), when he is asked, as he often is, “What are you?” his answer of “I’m black” suffices. However, Malcomson cannot know the Fahrenheit of his response, for Bill Mather (not his real name) is so much more than this incomplete racial definition. But it immediately quiets the inquiry and he has learned to slap it on his chest like a name tag. If his answer is as incomplete as the question posed is rude, because Mather has never successfully said his piece, he also has never made his peace. He carries a burden of racial self-consciousness that the scholar Thandeka says cuts across the American spectrum. (Historically, racial self-consciousness has been ascribed to blacks and members of other racial and cultural minorities, but Thandeka writes that this ascription also belongs to whites but that they have devised cultural mores that insure they have few opportunities to explore the condition.) For much of his life, Mather has had to name himself, and this has imbued him with a remarkable sense of presence. Waiting in line for Philip Merrill, he held his salt-and-pepper set and reflected on the journey that had brought him today to the Black Memorabilia table at the convention center.
“I never thought of collecting, but one afternoon, maybe five years ago, I walked into an antique shop and I saw this table full of black memorabilia. There were a number of whites picking up the pieces, studying them, and all of a sudden this thing hit me that this was my history that they were handling.” Along with this insight, he said, came an urgent need to make sure that none of his “history” left with them. “So I bought up all the memorabilia on that table. That’s how I started collecting.”
Evidence of the wide arc of Mather’s career as a collector is found in his living room, where idealized generic black figures are set beside figures that picture the racial stereotypes. Mather’s collection ranges from items that cost a few cents to those that ate up most of a paycheck. Like Diana Venable, he has an Aunt Jemima, a Sambo, and a tube of “Darkie” toothpaste, complete with an image of a smiling black person, manufactured until recently in Indonesia. Like the Browns, he has devoted much of his time to collectibles and has a trove of figures that inspire his thoughts on the burgeoning market for black memorabilia and collectibles. If anger fired his earliest move into this world, intellectual curiosity has kept him here. He shops at a local 99-cent store that features refrigerator magnets of smiling black faces, and he goes on eBay for auctions. He asked if I had seen Spike Lee’s movie Bamboozled, in which blacks depict themselves as minstrel performers, or the QuickTime movie Bill Bojangles, about the phenomenal black performer. He spoke of the Emmy-award-winning Ethnic Notions by Marlon Riggs, a documentary that traces deep-rooted sources of American racial consciousness. He is a wealth of information.
“But only black images,” he said. “That’s all I collect.”
African-American memorabilia populate the Web. For example, Debi’s Ordinary People offers resin figurines depicting “stepping out” fraternity men and “sophisticated” ladies. Rogers’s Originals, a Los Angeles–based business, designs black musical dolls; and Hikima Creations and the Wilson Brown Gallery both offer original art pieces. In many cases, perhaps because of the reproduction value at the website, the images appear colorless or clumsily molded. Items from another online outlet for black collectibles, Sarah’s Attic, include sugary figurines in categories listed as Yummykins and Schnookums. More serious black figurines can be found in the catalog under Colors of Life, Timeless Rhythm, and Voices of Praise. It is a large inventory, but only one figure seems remarkable, and this for the wrong reason. Mother of Humanity (“to show how all races can come together as one”) offers a gorgeous black madonna figure, her blue, white, and gold robe flowing, atop a sculpted globe so tiny that the relative difference in scale gives the unfortunate impression that the world is being crushed. Aunt Pitty Pat’s Attic offers only one collectible, a “traditional Mammy Cookie Jar” painted in red, black, and white and “as functional as she is decorative” because she is “very full bodied to hold lots of cookies.” She is advertised as looking “as if she just stepped out of Gone with the Wind.”
Among collectible lines, one of the most successful entrepreneurial efforts is that of Miss Martha. That effort includes a collectors’ club with contests, a collector’s spotlight, an official club magazine, an annual family reunion (convention), giveaways for joining or renewing membership, and an opportunity to purchase exclusive “membership only” figurines. The Miss Martha selections are noteworthy, but with the exception of the Historical Figures, the catalog suggests that the world has been suddenly peopled exclusively by cute brown-skinned children. Among the Inspirational figurines, Charlotte is shown with a stethoscope as she plays doctor with her doll. The Nativity figurines are all children, including Mary and Joseph, with Jesus — the only real underage character in the original Nativity scene — being replaced by a brown child named Preshus. Some of the figures in the Angel series have a little teddy bear sculpted into the design.
The International series has two Indian figurines (Little Chief and Minnie) that may be the only clear misstep in Miss Martha’s catalog. A more appealing crossover effort is in the Regular line, in which several figures come in a choice of brown skin or white. Isabelle, for example, in either brown or white, stares down at a broken wagon. The accompanying promotional bit reads: “ ‘Uh oh,’ said Isabelle, ‘my widdl’ wagon is bwoke. Can you fix it Papa?’ ”
While many of the Miss Martha creations are winningly attractive (if sometimes unremittingly cute), Prissy with Moon Pie is a fright-monster, a dwarfish-looking bag lady made up to look like a child sitting on a stump. The promotional piece reads: “Prissy’s snaggle toothed six-year-old grin shows her delight in the refreshment that she just got from the ‘rollin’ store.’ Her mama traded six eggs for her much enjoyed treat.”
Prissy is soon to be retired; no more figurines will be made. Miss Martha collectors say that with the limit reached on her numbers, her resale market value is likely to dramatically increase. (The spring 2001 Miss Martha magazine reported that a retired figurine was resold for $2385. Figurines are originally priced at about $55.) Prissy, it turns out, was the first Miss Martha that Linda Collier, president of the Louisiana Bayou chapter of the collectors’ club, bought. Reflecting on Prissy’s creator, Miss Martha, Collier calls her a blessing “because her figurines show how beautiful black people are.” This is perhaps all the more complimentary because Miss Martha, pictured on the website, and despite a permanent that gives her a crown of tight curls in the manner of an Afro, is clearly a white woman. This fact did not trouble Clara Walker, who lives in south San Diego, near Imperial Beach.
“Yes, I was surprised, but no, it didn’t bother me,” she said.
Walker started collecting in 1992, when her son gave her a Miss Martha’s Original named Patsy. (What distinguishes the Miss Martha’s Original line from her All God’s Children is size; the first is slightly smaller than the second. Figurines in the Historic series are larger still.) He bought Patsy because the figurine is shown bent over a washboard, and he’d grown up hearing stories of how his mother, as a little girl, had had to wash her siblings’ diapers using a washboard.
“I started with ‘Miss Martha’s Originals,’ ” inventoried Walker, “and I have a few from the Historic line, but I really only collect All God’s Children. And they all have to mean something to me.”
Walker, 62 and the gray-haired grandmother of ten and great-grandmother of two, keeps in shape with regular games of golf and by watching over her large family. After she got Patsy, she thought she looked lonely “sitting there all by herself, and so I got another. And after I got the second,” she added, laughing, “I went out and bought myself a curio cabinet! I was officially a collector!”
Today, she owns 62 figurines from the Miss Martha lines, and they each cast meaningful light on her life. For example, she recalls that as a little girl growing up in the small town of Brandon, Mississippi, she walked on tin cans made into stilts, carried in big chunks of ice for the icebox, and went to the beach, and there are figurines in the Miss Martha line that depict each of these experiences. “I got the Clara Brown from the Historic line because my first name is Clara and my maiden name was Brown, so you know I had to have that!” Also from that line, she has a Mary Mahoney figurine (Mahoney was the first black registered nurse) that was bought in honor of her sister, who is a nurse. Walker purchased a Richard Atkins, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, because her grandfather was a pastor in that church. One of the brown-into-white figurines made it into her curio cabinet because it looks like a mixed-raced child, and one of her grandchildren is of mixed race. She bought Simon and Andrew, an interracial pair shown fishing together, in tribute to Jonathan Sellers and Charlie Keever. The two youngsters were murdered in Palm City in 1993. “Yes, they all have stories,” she sighed.
Walker has been featured three times in the Collector’s Corner on the website. She buys her figurines at the Tinder Box in Chula Vista, one of more than two dozen outlets for Miss Martha in California. She attended her first “family reunion” in 1998, an interracial affair in which, she said, “everyone was like family.” (At that reunion, the prize to the collectors traveling the farthest went to a couple from Sweden.) Walker wishes there were a Miss Martha San Diego chapter. Each chapter develops a local scholarship program, and she would enjoy combining educational outreach with her own collecting passions.
As collectors go, Walker is small potatoes. (At the reunion, she met collectors with more than 300 figurines.) But she doesn’t mind. “I just find the ones that talk to me.” I remarked that one day she’d leave her grandchildren a wonderful set of collectibles, and she laughed. “ ‘Leave?’ But I’m not going anywhere!”
Kyle Husfloen, editor of Black Americana: Price Guide, weighs in on the question of memorabilia versus collectibles. “Because there is good period stuff still out there, with a tremendous opportunity for collectors to come upon some real finds, I don’t see why greater effort isn’t made to buy memorabilia.”
For those who decry the image portrayed of blacks, Husfloen says the memorabilia offers a window onto American and world history. He worries less about political correctness than manufacturing integrity.
So many collectibles are poor reproductions of earlier pieces, or distressingly sentimental. “But if you look hard enough,” he says, “there are some collectibles that succeed, that transcend the genre.” A case in point is the richly worked and recently manufactured cookie jar of Josephine Baker (produced by A Little Company) that retails at around $300. The image reproduced in the Price Guide of “la Baker” is sophisticated and pert, like the sensational dancer herself.
Bill Mather’s concerns about the race of the manufacturer reduces to an economic argument. “In the end, what bothers me is that black artists get ignored,” he said.
Such concern will not apply to Thomas Blackshear, a black artist certain not to be ignored.
“His work is Afrocentric,” said Mather. “What he does, you don’t see anywhere else.”
Thomas Blackshear II is a vague, attractive, overworked-looking, light-brown-skinned man in youthful middle age who wears his hair short on the sides and long on top. His haircut recalls the “flattop” of his youth, in the early ’60s. Blackshear has designed 20 U.S. postage stamps (the 50th Anniversary Movie Poster series, part of the Black Heritage series, and the Jazz Musician series). He has done the postal service’s commemorative stamp book “I Have a Dream,” with 28 portraits of black Americans who have made significant contributions to the country’s history. In addition, he has designed collector’s plates for the “Star Wars” series and “The Wizard of Oz.” But it is his achievement in black memorabilia that is breathtaking. Though he is a peace-loving man (much of his work has a Christian theme), the metaphor of war comes to mind when attempting to describe his body of memorabilia work. Mixing Art Nouveau with African culture in what he calls “Afro-Nouveau,” Blackshear has managed to invade and conquer that immense battlefield once the sole province of grinning pickaninnies, fat Aunt Jemimas, and docile Uncle Bens.
Blackshear is described as a “romantic visionary,” depicting not so much idealized types (the cloying cute stuff found in the world of collectibles) but the ideal moment. His figures are shown in marvelous head-high stride, in affectionate embrace, in tender holding. His genius is to capture the attitude an instant before the gesture is complete. Never once does he falter in his Ebony Vision collection. They are original conceptions that challenge the usual gender- and age-defined roles. In Blackshear, men comfort and women stand proud, the old are shown in animated exchange with the young, and never is a teddy bear in sight. He falters only once, to my mind, in his crossover Christian-theme vision, “Forgiven,” in which a white-shrouded Jesus is shown grabbing from behind, and holding up, a young white in jeans and a T-shirt. The fellow is gripping a mallet and spike, which are meant to testify to his role in the ongoing crucifixion of Christ, but the pose is awkward, with the Christ-figure looking as if he is tearing at the flesh of the sinner, who has fallen into a swoon. Yet even here, despite what I take as a failure of execution, Blackshear stands comparison to the greatest of 20th-century American illustrators, Norman Rockwell.
That name comes to mind because earlier on the same December afternoon that I first met Diana Venable, I took in “Pictures for the American People,” an exhibited collection of Rockwell’s paintings and illustrated magazine covers. His work was so precisely painted, with details so carefully articulated, that the artist seemed to be reporting an actual story rather than creating one. Like Blackshear, his idealized subjects appear as naturally observed. Contributors to the exhibition catalog report that Rockwell became “a master at representing American ideologies.”
His work is a celebration of an America going from small town to urban center and suburb. As the century progressed, chronicling the changes in American life, Rockwell came to The Problem We All Live With (1964), a study of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, escorted by federal marshals, integrating the William Frantz School in Biloxi, Mississippi. Three years later, in New Kids in the Neighborhood, Rockwell depicted black and white youngsters in cautious overtures of childhood friendship. In 1965, he painted his bloodiest canvas, the murders of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi. Despite being works in which blacks figure, it is not easy to claim these as pieces of black memorabilia. The stories seem to be really about whites. Take the murders of the three civil rights workers. Published on the cover of Look magazine, the scene shows one man down, while the mortally wounded black man is held up by the other white, whose pale whiskers identify him as Michael Schwerner, known to local members of the Ku Klux Klan as “Goatee.” Rockwell could not have known that Schwerner was the first to have been killed, with a gunshot wound to the chest. Andrew Goodman, the other white, was next, and murdered the same way. The last to die was the black man, James Chaney, who, according to differing reports, was savagely beaten before receiving a bullet wound to the head. These facts came out years later, in the course of the trial. Yet in the way Rockwell has framed the scene, he achieves not only dramatic effect but supports a popular cultural ideology. In the picture, Goodman lies at some distance, while Chaney raises his bloody hands to the shoulders of Schwerner, who stands in profile, staring full at the unseen killers. The murderers’ long shadows stretch toward the trio from the edge of the canvas. Despite the real and terrible fact that all three young men were brutally murdered, Rockwell has chosen to enshrine the white man as the hero in this awful tableau. The black man is left on his knees.
Even master artists like Norman Rockwell or Thomas Blackshear must be wary that their most preciously held ideologies, whether cultural, political, or religious, blind them in their aesthetic decisions and renderings. That said, in Blackshear’s Ebony Visions collection, Blackshear includes canvases, bas reliefs, bronzes, and memento boxes, each superbly produced and handsomely displayed on the Matahari website out of Portland, Oregon. In a realm adrift in preciousness, Blackshear’s pieces (“Joyful Noise,” “Hero,” “Sisters Forever,” “The Guardian,” “The Comforter”) encourage the viewer to look to the object for its emotional message. These are works of art that succeed in their own right rather than on what the viewer brings to the moment. His works are deluxe versions of contemporary black collectibles.
When Bill Mather at last reached the front of the line at the convention center and laid his salt-and-pepper shakers on the table, Philip Merrill told him briefly that his shakers were not old, not unusually distinguished, and not worth very much. Hardly surprised, he had hoped to learn from an expert a little of what went into African-American memorabilia and appraising. He did not get the chance.
Not long after Mather was whisked on his way, a mother and daughter appeared at Merrill’s table. They explained that they had gone to a local storage auction hoping to find furniture. But potential bidders were allowed only to look through the doors of the lockers whose rental fees had long lapsed; they could not pick through them. Bidding blind, the women put down an offer of $200, hoping it would win. It did. But it was not furniture they found. Behind the mix of stuff in the front were legal contracts, a 78 rpm record player, photographs, official letterhead, hand-penned musical scores, a stack of sheet music, a 1921 diploma from a New York music conservatory, and the spectacles, hat, cane, and obituary of James Price Johnson.
Philip Merrill took one look at what the women laid out for him and hurried off in search of his producer.
Six years ago, Diana Venable alphabetized her list of musical entertainers whose record albums she owned. Her albums ranged from pop to rock ’n’ roll to jazz to religious music. Her alphabetized list includes:
Gregory Abbott, Louis Armstrong, Roy Ayers, Anita Baker, Harry Belafonte, Regina Belle, George Benson, Bobby Bland, Angela Bofill, Peabo Bryson, Jerry Butler, Charlie Byrd, Bruce Cameron, Gene Chandler, Ray Charles, Chicago, Chi-Lites, Billy Cobham, Nat “King” Cole, John Coltrane, Randy Crawford, Miles Davis, the Dells, Fats Domino, George Duke, Earth Wind and Fire, Billy Eckstine, the Fifth Dimension, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Gabriel, Marvin Gaye, Larry Graham, Al Green, Herbie Hancock, John Handy, Donny Hathaway, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Hodges, Lena Horne, Hues Corporation, James Ingram, Ink Spots, Isley Brothers, Jermaine Jackson, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson, Ahmad Jamal, Grace Jones, Quincy Jones, Wynton Kelly, B.B. King, Evelyn King, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Hubert Laws, Little Richard, Gloria Lynne, Moms Mabley, Taj Mahal, Miriam Makeba, Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Mathis, Bobby McFerrin, Mills Brothers, Stephanie Mills, Wes Montgomery, Judy Mowatt, Teddy Pendergrass, Esther Phillips, Wintley Phipps, the Platters, Lou Rawls, Jimmy Reed, Della Reese, Lionel Richie, Paul Robeson, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Sade, David Sancious, Labi Siffre, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, the Spinners, Candi Staton, Dakota Staton, Sly Stone, Donna Summer, the Supremes, Johnnie Taylor, the Temptations, Big Joe Turner, Tina Turner, McCoy Tyner, Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick, Dinah Washington, Randy Weston, Barry White, Deniece Williams, Nancy Wilson, Bill Withers, Bobby Womack, and Stevie Wonder.
The article by Renee Johnson in the Antique Trader lists the prices of just two pieces of music-related memorabilia: Sheet music, “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me,” by Duke Ellington, photo of Ellington at the piano on the cover, red and blue cover, 4 pages, 1942, $10; and “Denison’s Minstrel and Song Catalogue,” red, white, and black cover with well-dressed minstrel man, 1907, T.S. Denison and Co., Chicago, $35.
But Venable’s sizable collection cannot compare to the trove of Johnson memorabilia. This was truly a find, and Merrill pitched this to his producer, who agreed to a taping. The producer then spoke with the two women. They signed releases; so did Merrill (indicating, among other things, his impartiality in the project). Then the mother went into the greenroom for makeup, and soon enough, they were being filmed for TV.
What had been picked up for $200 were the effects of a singularly important transitional figure in American musical history. James P. Johnson, a dark-skinned man with deep-set eyes and a full, sensuous mouth, was a piano player whose style, called “stride” — a virtuoso fingering technique — bridged ragtime and jazz. Johnson began his performing career in sporting houses and then progressed to rent parties, bars, and vaudeville. He became known as the best piano player on the East Coast and was used as an accompanist on over 400 recordings. From 1916 on, he produced hundreds of piano rolls under his own name. He backed up famous blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, wrote musical revues, symphonic works, and a one-act opera with words by Langston Hughes. Johnson was featured in the recent ten-hour PBS special Jazz. He was a major influence on some of jazz’s greatest musicians, including Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk. His solo discography runs to over four pages, and his song “Charleston,” perhaps the most widely recorded song of the 1920s, was said to epitomize the Jazz Age.
The Antiques Roadshow had come to San Diego hoping for a winner, and they’d found it. Not long after the Roadshow taping, the crew broke down the set elements — the lighting, audio, communications, and production office — stowed all the parts in the grip truck, and headed out of town.
“Stories from the Road,” a feature of the Roadshow website, focuses on three major finds at each stop on the 2001 tour. The first week in July, information on the San Diego leg was posted. “The Roadshow corralled its wagons and headed west this past weekend for a stop in scenic San Diego. Californians lined up in droves, toting their favorite finds. Our eagle-eyed appraisers spotted a few hidden gems, including a historic Civil War quilt, a pristine cast-iron sleigh, and a rare bird dreamed up by Dr. Seuss.” Originally purchased for $60 as part of a box lot, the Dr. Seuss sculpture earned a price tag of $25,000 from the appraiser. The quilt, bought for $300, was appraised at $4000–$8000. And the $69.95 Santa Claus sleigh, “in 100% original condition,” was estimated at $3000–$4000.
When told that he’d not made the cut for the online “Stories from the Road,” Merrill was philosophical. “Let’s see if we make the TV show,” he said.
Merrill got lucky again in New York a few weeks later. At his place under the “Black Memorabilia” banner, he appraised a twice-signed painting by the most celebrated of 20th-century African-American artists, Romare Bearden (1914–1988). Again, the producer taped a sequence with the owners and, again, Bearden, a huge cultural totem, arguably the greatest visual artist to put on record the African-American experiences of the last century, did not make it into the online “stories” portion. Instead, there was a rare silver creamer, a codfish weathervane, and memorabilia from the city’s own “rocking Ramones.”
James P. Johnson or Dr. Seuss? Romare Bearden or the Ramones? There are any number of reasons to explain the choices made, but in the end the reasons reduce down to color. After all, it was color that established distinctions and the rationale for African enslavement, color that brought the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement. It was color that created the early marketing of African-American memorabilia, and color that is helping a new black middle class buy back their image and disclose it as a historical hoax. The African, in his sojourn here, understands how color decides what gets put on a website and what gets a five-minute airing on TV. That color is green.
The producers crafted three hourlong episodes that aired the past three weeks. The Johnson memorabilia, left in a storage bin and acquired for $200, was appraised at $12,000 to $15,000.