Black memorabilia, sometimes called Black Americana, describes objects and ephemera relating to African American and Afro-European history. Most of this material was produced from the 18th through the 20th centuries. Frequently, these household items reflect racist ideas about black people through offensive and dehumanizing caricatures. However, black memorabilia also encompasses objects with positive connotations, commemorating civil rights advances or achievements by scholars, artists, musicians, athletes, politicians, and other members of the black community.
Some of the earliest items associated with black memorabilia were actually produced in Europe. These ornamental portrayals of Africans, referred to as blackamoors or blackamores, appeared on enameled jewelry, pottery, sculptures, and other decorative arts beginning as early as the 13th century, when black servants came to represent the pinnacle of wealth.
Displaying a blend of stereotypical Oriental, Arabian, and African attributes, blackamoor objects typically feature a head or bust with dark skin, a colorful turban, and elaborate gold jewelry. The trend for these exoticized pieces peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as European countries increasingly colonized and traded with areas in Northern Africa.
Across the Atlantic, as slavery became entrenched in the American way of life, representations of African Americans helped to reinforce this inhumane system. Just as white superiority was cultivated by clergymen, politicians, and scientists, this belief system was also spread through popular culture, via theatrical performances, song lyrics, advertising imagery, and the design of household objects. After the Civil War and the end Radical Reconstruction in the South, Jim Crow laws and public lynchings became means of subjugating black Americans. At the same time, advances in printing and manufacturing technology allowed companies to churn out products with popular caricatures of black people.
Much of this racist imagery perpetuated the association between African Americans and household servitude, like the smiling cook used in Cream of Wheat ads. Others aimed to get a laugh with depictions of simple-minded oafs obsessing over watermelon or being attacked by alligators. Caricatures of black people appeared on every imaginable product, although skin color was used especially often as an advertising punchline for goods like ink, tooth paste, shoe polish, washing powder, and house paint.
While this packaging documented existing opinions about African Americans, it also influenced cultural norms moving forward: Even as progressive groups questioned the ethics of racial prejudices, popular depictions of black Americans as subhuman often undermined their efforts. Sheet music for vaudeville tunes known as “coon songs”—which described black men as uppity, shiftless, razor-wielding, drunken, gambling, and lecherous fools—were also wildly popular at the turn of the century.
During the 19th century, several offensive stereotypes became commonplace, including male savages or brutes, subservient Toms and mammies, sexualized Jezebels, pickaninny childre...
Eventually, familiar characters like Golliwog, Aunt Jemima, and Little Black Sambo were created as amalgamations of various racial stereotypes to market all manner of toys and household products. Dressed in a bright blue jacket with a red bow tie and trousers, Golliwog (or Golliwogg) was originally a character in Florence Kate Upton’s book “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls,” published in 1895. The Golliwog doll in Upton’s story was modeled after minstrel performers, who were known for their ugly blackface representations of African Americans. After Upton’s book series became a success, Golliwogs became especially popular as rag dolls, though the character was also featured on products like postcards, clocks, pottery, and wallpaper.
At the time, the dominant representation of black children was as “pickaninny” kids, who were dirty, unkempt, and barely clothed—almost animal in their wildness. These portrayals were seared into the collective imagination with the 1922 arrival of “Our Gang,” the film series that would eventually become “The Little Rascals.” Characters like the infamous Buckwheat epitomized the bumbling, poorly dressed pickaninny.
Perhaps the most popular version of the pickaninny caricature was introduced with Helen Bannerman’s 1899 book, “Little Black Sambo.” This children’s story follows a young black boy as he outwits a series of tigers, and is finally rewarded with tiger-striped pancakes. Though the tale itself was not inherently racist, the name Sambo was a common epithet for a lazy servant, and the book’s illustrations reinforced a variety of negative stereotypes about black people. Additionally, the immediate popularity of “Little Black Sambo” resulted in a proliferation of knock-off versions, many of them incorporating more offensive storylines and imagery.
Though Aunt Jemima is most famously associated with the Quaker Oats pancake mix, her character was originally based on a minstrel song from 1875 called “Old Aunt Jemima.” In her apron and polka-dotted kerchief, Aunt Jemima became the familiar face of the mammy stereotype, a motherly and overweight black woman who is visibly happy in her subservient position. The mammy caricature is one of the most enduring black stereotypes, and was often used as proof that servitude was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Mammy caricatures appeared on a wide variety of household objects, especially kitchen-related items like cookie jars, dish towels, pitchers, string holders, salt and pepper shakers, tea tins, and detergent boxes.
In the face of such negative portrayals, African Americans pushed for change, creating their own representations and making strides towards greater equality in the public sphere. Some of the most coveted items of Black Americana are connected to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, like comic books that captured the story of Dr. Martin Luther King or newspaper clippings covering Rosa Parks’s trial. Political icons ranging from Frederick Douglas to Malcolm X have been commemorated with collectible objects like silver spoons, decorative plates, and ceramic figurines.
Memorabilia connected with all types of black celebrities is highly valued, from tickets for Josephine Baker performances to signed photographs of Muhammad Ali, original Duke Ellington records, and Jackie Robinson baseball cards. Other names are less recognizable to modern ears, but represent equally important milestones for black Americans, such as Madam C. J. Walker, whose popular hair tonic made her one of America’s first female millionaires.
Products targeted toward African American consumers make up another important segment of Black Americana, like Walker’s “Wonderful Hair Grower” or early issues of groundbreaking publications like “Ebony” and “Jet.” Original Patty-Jo dolls also fall into this category: Launched by the Terri Lee doll company in 1947, Patty-Jo was created explicitly for black children by African American illustrator Jackie Ormes.
Even some offensive objects of Black Americana celebrate the successes of African Americans. For example, black jockey figurines, common to white suburban communities during the mid-20th century, aren’t only a reminder of black servitude. Rumor has it that George Washington commissioned the first statue of a black jockey holding a lantern after his black groomsman, Tom Graves, who froze to death while lighting the way for revolutionary troops crossing the Delaware River. In fact, black jockeys were some of America’s first sports stars, as slaves represented their masters’ teams in southern races beginning as early as mid-1600s. A black jockey named Oliver Lewis won the first-ever Kentucky Derby in 1875, and African American athletes dominated the sport well into the 20th century.
Today, historic artifacts connected to slavery are among the most desirable pieces of Black Americana, which include trade documents, shackles, and identification tags, as well as abolitionist circulars and books. Other signs of institutionalized racism, like signs from the Jim Crow era designating separate spaces for “colored” and “white,” are also sought by collectors.
In many ways, modern attempts to achieve a more equitable society have served to whitewash over these painful realities. Few realize that Agatha Christie’s best-selling mystery novel of 1939, “And Then There Were None,” was originally titled “Ten Little Niggers,” after a popular nursery rhyme that recounts the deaths of ten black children (the poem is called “Ten Little Indians” in the American text).
While many fear the preservation of Black Americana serves to prolong racist prejudices, others collect these objects to ensure that America’s troubled past isn’t forgotten by future generations. In the words of David Pilgrim, founder of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan, “Use items of intolerance to teach tolerance.”