Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Of Barack Obama and Watermelons (Continued): I Wanted to Smash Them. A Journey Through a Wonderland of Racist 'Notions' and 'Collectibles'

I am fascinated by how race and racial ideologies are reproduced through popular culture.

As such, I would like to continue exploring the broader context of the watermelon caricature of Barack Obama in the Boston Herald. It is not an isolated incident: the racist caricatures and hostility towards Obama is part of a centuries-long pattern of physical and psychic violence against black and brown people by White American society.

The word "notions" is a vague euphemism which is used to describe racist figurines and other "collectible" objects. These racist objects are intended to denigrate, humiliate, dehumanize, and legitimate violence against non-whites. The most common notions draw on a white supremacist racial imagination wherein black people are caricatured as "coons", "Sambos" or "mammies".

From an early age, I understood that notions existed: a tattered and dog eared tome known as The Black Book, a gift from my mother after she finished her Introduction to Af-Am Studies course at the local community college, was my introduction to that world (and many others). I did not fully understand the power of racist objects until I encountered them in person.

During one of the many trips to bowling tournaments that occupied the weekends of my teen years and early twenties, I realized that there is likely more virulent racism in rural and suburban New England, Pennsylvania, and other parts of the Mid Atlantic region than in the South. At the time, I did not yet have the fully vocabulary necessary to successfully work through the "hows" and "whys" of this instinct; I now understand that many whites in those communities choose to live there precisely because they are racially homogeneous spaces. They are the progenitors and children of white flight and American Apartheid.

One Saturday afternoon, after a relatively successful day at a bowling tournament, my traveling partners, two dear and great friends (if any persons are deserving of such honorifics it would be them), decided to stop at a flea market/swap meet in a town somewhere between Lancaster, Pennsylvania and New York.

Road trips are exercises in tedium. Local kitsch is a bonus distraction.

Three young black men had invaded a white space. An arts and crafts fair and swap meet in a rust belt town, one that had swung over to Reagan because of his Southern Strategy and lies about strapping black bucks buying steaks, welfare queens driving Cadillac cars, and affirmative action stealing the white man's jobs, was none too friendly to three young negroes with a nerve and swagger born of innocence mixed with the comportment of trained black respectability.

We did not avert our eyes at the ground. We were not humble. We did not shuffle or show gratitude for the privilege of being in this white space. Why should we be? We were young lions. Driving free in our car, across the country, and full of confident testosterone and freedom. We are not projections of a dated and obsolescent White Gaze that yearns for a return to "the good old days".

We are American citizens with the same rights and and privileges of any other people. Idealistic youth is forced to mature and bend when it encounters the facts of the world. This is especially true for young black men and other people of color.

The color line is policed. One of the informal ways that it is maintained is through racial geography and how some people, those Others, are made to feel less than welcome through micro aggressions, the negative energy of hostile eyes, or a turned back that ignores your offers of money and conversation.

We surveyed the tables. I wanted to see if I could be made rich by separating one of the rube locals from his or her priceless comic books or baseball cards. My friends sought out Beenie Babies or other hot in the moment faux "collectibles" that were then and now remain a type of fool's gold.

We found none of these things. We did however discover a wonderland of racist "collectibles" and notions. I was stunned. The Matrix films describe deja vu as a moment when the computer simulation is resetting itself. The stutter is the Matrix incorporating new data. The tables of mammies, Sambos, toothy big red lipped soot black dolls and postcards, record albums, and signs were the equivalent of my seeing a U.F.O., a werewolf, or a vampire in the flesh and in person.

[In those moments of cognitive dissonance we often impute and fill in the gaps of memory and experience as a way of making sense of the world around us. Were there KKK robes on display? More racist "notions"? Fewer? I am unsure. But I am positive about the sum total of white supremacist memorabilia I saw on display that day.]

I walked over to one of the tables and asked the sellers, a tired looking old white man and his plump matronly wife, about one of the mammy figures. He pretended to not hear me. I asked his wife the same question, she was friendly looking in a nondescript way, the product of if an art teacher said "draw me a white woman in her seventies who has lived an uneventful life but is happy to hang out at arts and crafts fairs, and wears an apron while baking cookies for her grand kids."

She mumbled an answer about history and how these are harmless things which she has been collecting her whole life. There was anger and meanness in her eyes. She was not the seamstress for the KKK. She represented a more mundane type of racism.

My friends told me that it was time to go. They were my stand-in older brothers. We only children often make our own families. The oldest was also the wheel man. I took the hint from the body language of the old man and his wife, that like Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina, they didn't like us very much. We had no Obi-Wan Kenobi to protect us if matters had gone sideways. Padawans learn to make quick exits for the door as a necessary life and survival skill.

We got into the old Toyota Camry and drove out of that mostly empty parking lot. I looked out the back window and there was a white man wearing a blue or brown auto mechanic's one piece uniform standing in the doorway to the dying and soon to be abandoned strip mall. He glared at the car as it departed. We were not the target of an overt threat in that space and wonderland of racist objects; however, there was menace and rage, negative energy that was an accelerant for red hot white racism.

Racist objects reflect the social, political, and cultural attitudes of a society organized around the maintenance and protection of white supremacy. I am fascinated by them because unlike cyber-racism, or even the intangibles of negative racial attitudes as measured by public opinion surveys and experimental psychologists, they are real things that can be held, observed, and touched. They have literal weight.

A person sat down and made those racist figurines, posters, and dolls. Another person purchased them. There is an economy of hatred and bigotry where racism is traded and exchanged like a type of currency.

Racist objects, notions such as the coon, Sambo, and mammy, represent a nostalgia and yearning for a past when white supremacy and violence against non-whites--blacks in particular--was the birthright of all white people. White people collect notions because they are sacred objects which channel white supremacist attitudes, values, and principles. Here, racist objects empower the psychic wages of whiteness.

Racist collectibles are sacred objects to people of color too. They are reminders of how the past lives in the present. I want to possess such objects while avoiding being possessed by them--do note the emphasis in my language. I want to obtain such objects in order to destroy them. However, my intellect tells me that racist objects should be preserved for the purpose of public memory.

The dualisms of the color line are vexing. What to do? How to navigate them?


Paul Willis said...

I had a similar experience not long ago in a knick-knack shop in Baxter Springs, Kansas, when I stumbled upon a trove of Nazi memorabilia in a back corner of the shop. My mind went thru a number of contortions trying to figure out what it all meant. Was this the tip of a white supremacist iceberg, or just some war momentos brought home by an old patriot? The proprietor seemed friendly enough, but I chose not to interrogate further.

KissedByTheSun said...

Can't say I've ever had an experience like that. Or, maybe I have and was too young and oblivious to recognize it. I do remember watching the old unedited Looney Tunes cartoons in the morning before school in all their racist glory. It didn't occur to me how hateful these images were. As a child I understood it as being representative of "truth" or what is "normal". When they finally edited all the racism out of the cartoons I actually felt the "loss" as if something important was missing. I could even tell people when Bugs Bunny was supposed to be in blackface when the scene was jumped over.
Come to think of it, isn't it weird how Looney Tunes went from reinforcing white supremacy for white adults to being beloved characters for children? Are there any characters from Nazi propaganda films that survive as children's cartoons now or is this an American phenomenon where the most violently hateful things get rebranded as family friendly?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I saw some Black Americana at a local flea market a few years back. My wife and friends had never heard of the stuff before. I showed them and they were disgusted. I wanted to break it all.

I also had a student make watermelon joke about black people in a class I was teaching that was all white. I corrected him and he had a brief "aha" moment wherein he realized that he and his family also loved watermelon and there wasn't anything special about black people and watermelons.

I probably should have given him detention after we talked about it..

balitwilight said...

I think that your observation about Northeastern American racism being just as virulent as Southern racism rings true. MLK observed that the racism in Chicago was worse than in Mississipi. I suspect that the greater segregation in the North just gives some "whites" an aggrieved sense of discomfort, indignation and entitlement, provoked at the merest slight of a "black" face. In the South the threat that reminds you of your Forever Estrangement lurks in the accents, in the very air, and tree branches, but in the North it needs to be - and is - personally embodied with almost every encounter.
When I was in Rome, Italy 10-or-so years ago I saw a beautiful shop display-window full of carnival masks. Nestled among the masks - shamelessly on open display in the metro downtown - was a giant shiny black grinning antebellum Mammy figure. Racist culture is the one American export still going strong - and so is the casual and staggeringly oblivious uptake of that American racism in Europe, Asia - and Africa.

chauncey devega said...

Like the scene in Falling Down...but without the nice owner huh? One does wonder about intent and propriety. What were the specific items?

chauncey devega said...

It is one of America's greatest exports for sure. America is a racist society--the way it manifests is common in goals but shows itself differently by region.

Paul Willis said...

Good movie, but I don't recall that scene. This was more like that scene in American Beauty... they had dinner ware and other tableware covered with swastikas. Stuff that would normally livelihood, if dated, but rendered quietly sinister with those symbols. You could actually overlook some of it if you were power-browsing, but once you realized what you were seeing... it's was kind of like suddenly discovering vampires are real.

Miles_Ellison said...

This reminds me of a joke I heard once: Black people love fried chicken. You know who else loves fried chicken? Everybody.

Gable1111 said...

My wife and I stumbled upon a trove of this stuff at an estate sale recently. A lot of it was advertisement posters and flyers for everyday household products - soap, cleaning fluids, cooking and baking products, all adorned with some of the most grotesque distortions of blacks I've ever seen.

I realized later that since these were advertisements, these images were designed to evoke a sense of comfort and familiarity. This stuff is symptomatic of racist hatred, but it was loved because it reinforced in the minds of those that consumed it their superiority to those they hated. Seeing a grotesquely figured Sambo on a box of soap made them feel good about themselves and thus good about buying.

ToneTone said...

I recall a time when my church youth group travelled to some little, old former mining town in CA way out near Sacramento. We attended services Sunday morning and then had lunch. We stopped in a little tchotchke shop on the main street and went inside. The racist collectibles were not out front but on a table near the back of the store and pointed out to me by my good, church friend, JW. JW happens to be white and was my vice president of our youth group. I was president. I knew these things existed in the world of my parents who came up in 40s-50s east Texas but I was raised on military bases in CA. There wasn't really any exposure to this kind of racism. As we were living in Alameda, I bought into the whole liberal California propaganda never understanding that no matter where you go in the US, you're still in the US. I think I was shocked most to see it just so out in the open and I didn't really know how to react. I was definitely offended but JW seemed to be actually titillated by the images. I can remember him snickering at the caricatures and not understanding the real hurt these objects cause.

Waterwitch said...

I wept a different kind of "white woman's tears" when I recently saw a hideous caricature of a Black woman preening in front of mirror--a postcard from, I think, the 1940s. I don't want to go back to look, and I won't describe it. I thought, as I saw it, of an African American friend telling me about the everyday energy he put into trying to convince his late, very dark wife of her own beauty. I felt sickened and horrified by the violence of the image on the postcard, and its heinous effect on this beautiful woman, from the time she was a small child. These objects ARE violent, and they are meant to be so.