Recently I discovered a house listing in Dallas, Texas accompanied by a startling photo. You can view it here on one of the largest real estate networks on the web or on the realtor’s site here or see below. The property is described as “family owned since 1931.” The kitchen contains a gorgeous gas stove that any cook with a fondness for authentic appliances would embrace with excitement. Yet look closely at the wall to the left of the stove. Yes, that it is a Mammy paper towel dispenser mounted in full Jim Crow glory. Clearly it never occurred to the real estate agent, the photographer, or the “home stager” that it might be problematic to decorate a house for sale with what has been referred to as “Black Memorabilia” or “Black Americana.”
From the 1880s-1950s tens of thousands of these consumer items were marketed and sold in the United States; this included everything from cookie jars, table clothes, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, dishes, glassware, lamps, children’s toys and games, greeting cards, books, sheet music, fishing lures, lawn jockeys, and postcards. Just about any item you might think of was designed with grotesque caricatured images of African Americans. These images often portrayed black men and women as dark-skinned with exaggerated noses, lips, and teeth as well as stupid, frightened, childlike, or lazy. “Sambo,” “Mammy,” Uncle Mose,” “Uncle Remus,” “Uncle Ben,” “Rastus,” and “Zip Coon” were ubiquitous in American popular culture. Just type any of these terms into the eBay search engine. As of today a search for “Black Americana” pulled up 25,380 results.
If you’re interested in learning more about these collectibles a plethora of examples can be viewed at the digital Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The 1987 documentary Ethnic Notions also provides an excellent history of the ways in which these dehumanizing images circulated in American popular culture for decades. Produced by California Newsreel the film can be viewed on YouTube here. Alice Walker, acclaimed writer and author of The Color Purple, once described her anguished feelings about this racist memorabilia: “These caricatures and stereotypes were really intended as prisons. Prisons without the traditional bars, but prisons of image. Inside each desperately grinning ‘Sambo’ and each placid 300-pound ‘mammy’ lamp there is imprisoned a real person, someone we know. If you look at hard at the collection and don’t panic…you will begin to really see, the eyes and then the hearts of these despised relatives of ours, who have been forced to lock their true spirits away from themselves and away from us…” It is time to shelve these prisons permanently. In 1931 (and even in 2014?) I am certain these homeowners viewed this Mammy kitchen item as familiar and banal, but it has no place today even in a historical home for sale.