My recent trip to the Brimfield Antique Show reminded me how some areas of collecting can still be hard to understand. A box of Gold Dust Twins laundry powder and its racially-charged advertising particularly struck a chord with me. The high-cringe factor made me a bit uncomfortable to say the least and a little unsure about the guy who was selling it.
Nearly a week later, I’m still pondering African Americana. While many steer clear of the negativity represented by objects that shed a less than favorable light on Black history, others have a completely opposite and more personal reaction. For collectors like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Spike Lee and Whoopi Goldberg, African Americana is viewed as a reflection of a cultural heritage that includes both difficulties and triumphs.
I have a habit of asking a lot of questions and find it interesting how antique sellers can be truly hesitant to approach the subject while others will gladly talk your ear off about it. One seller told me that “the history of an object doesn’t matter, it’s how it makes you feel when you look at it today.” I’ve heard mixed comments from shoppers, several taking issue with the object’s original use and meaning but about the same amount who understood the importance of ascribing modern values and awareness to the items.
Even while writing this post, I thought at least twenty times to myself if I should actually write it. It made me think about a story interview with an antique bookseller a few months back. The woman had been given a vintage copy of the children’s book “Little Black Sambo” and was nearly distraught over the complications of even having it in her shop. “Someone could find it offensive or think I was selling it for the wrong reasons,” she said. I, having never seen the book before and curious to take a look, got through the first few pages before a customer walked in the shop and the bookseller hurriedly snatched it away from me to hide.
Even with my love of Harlem Renaissance writers and half of my graduate school study being African American literature, I never thought to delve into the topic of African Americana. While I plan to learn more, here are a few things for you to ponder:
3 Most Common Collectibles
1. Slave-era Items. They’re the most priceless and also most debated since not everyone approves of secondary market trades.
2. Advertising and ephemera featuring Black figures from the 1920-1950 are the most popular yet have the least amount of sellers.
3. Historical items from the early days of the NAACP and political posters from 1960s activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are in high demand but are hard to find.
3 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know
1. 1960s activism raised awareness in advertising and reduced the use of racially-charged advertising like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus.
2. Collectibles can be costly. In 2006, a letter by the poet Phillis Wheatley sold for a record $253,000.
3. African Americana is not immune to reproductions and fakes. The most reproduced items being Gold Dust Soap packages(!!!), iron objects, and ceramics like cookie jars and salt & peppers shakers.
Five Resources to Check Out
PBS Antiques Roadshow African Americana
Businessweek.com Tracking African Americana
The Public Relations Museum The Advertiser’s Holy Trinity: Aunt Jemima, Rastus, and Uncle Ben
Boston African Americana Project
NYTimes Uncle Ben, Board Chairman
Between the Covers’ African Americana Rare Book Collection
What’s your take? Do African Americana items carry too much negative baggage or do they positively connect cultures with their past?