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Collecting Mammy

June 2024
2min read

Aunt Jemima moves to the mantelpiece

As Aunt Jemima anticipates her centennial, she has shown up in what at first glance seems unlikely circumstances: as one of the heroines of the black collectibles movement, whose participants have grown over the last five years to some thirty-five thousand, according to Jeannette Carson, president of Black Ethnic Collectibles Inc., the hobby’s organization, and publisher of its magazine. In iron and wood, plastic and fabric, Mammy has become highly prized. At a recent show and sale for collectors in Washington, D.C., one could find cookie jars and pot holders in her image, advertisements and banners, even old packages of mix and meal. One vendor offered a banner for a local Kiwanis Club that had linked fundraising with Aunt Jemima. Price: $550.

About 70 percent of the collectors are black, and they include Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopie Goldberg, whose mantel is lined with Mammy figurines. Entire shops and galleries are devoted to the field: Black by Popular Demand, in Colorado Springs; Holt’s Country Store, in Grandview, Missouri; Jemima’s, in Philadelphia; and Coco’s Nasty Boutique, in Brooklyn, New York. This is no mere fad: auction houses such as Christie’s deal in the material, and the stately Wadsworth Atheneum recently bought the six-thousand-item collection of Randolph Linsly Simpson, an early white collector.

Black collectibles include such stark items as actual slave shackles, newspaper ads offering to sell slaves, and signs saying “White Only” or even “No Negroes, Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.” That African-Americans should collect such derogatory images has gotten a lot of attention. But less noticed is that black collectors have become fascinated by all sorts of historical items, including memorabilia about black cavalrymen, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Negro Baseball Leagues. An outfit called Geographic Roots sells maps of Africa to be used to trace one’s roots: “ninety per cent of the gene pool comes from 900 miles of coastline,” its brochure states.

For many at the Washington show, as for one grandmother who had brought her grandson, the purpose was simple education. “I want him to know what things used to be like,” she said. But even within families, opinion is divided on this material. “My grandmother says, ‘Get that stuff out of the house,’ ” said one vendor at the expo, “but my father won’t hear of it.” Not long ago a similar argument was the subject of an episode of “A Different World,” the television series spun off from “The Cosby Show.”

That such history serves an important purpose was obvious at the Washington show. Behind a curtain wall, barely protected from the buzz of the crowd, collectors could attend a series of seminars on the history and meanings of black imagery. “Racism existed in the subculture of advertising,” Dr. Brenda Vemer, a collector and history professor, told her mostly black audience. “These images saturated the subconscious of America.” They showed children as thieves, men as lazy or dandies, and women as overweight and fat-lipped. “It was debilitating,” she says. “When I was a child, I asked, ‘Where do white people get their ideas about us?’ This is the answer.”

That Dr. Vemer and others collect such material is only partly so this history will not be forgotten; it is also so that it can be changed. Many collectors feel a kind of redemption in taking physical possession of the stereotype. Lowery Sims, an associate curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and collector of black dolls and other material, has said that this sort of collecting “represents our quest in search of a sense of self. Reclaiming and dealing with a negative stereotype is a way of not letting it hurt you.”

—P.P.

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