Learning From History

Pulitzer Price-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence page is black. Mr. Page collects racist memorabilia. In his latest Trib column after recounting how he began his collection he continues:

At home, I put it on a visible shelf next to my old cast-iron Aunt Jemima penny bank that my parents gave me when I was 4 or 5, to help me start saving money for college. I had one of those mothers who believed that life begins after you finish medical school. (Sorry, Mom. I tried.)

We loved our Aunt Jemima bank, partly because it reminded my mother of her “Aunt Laura,” which quickly became what we called our bank instead of “Aunt Jemima,” which in our community often was denigrated into a slur — like the overly maligned “Uncle Tom” or Uncle Ben, whose rice box image Mars Inc. is dropping.

I later found I was not alone as a collector. As previously whites-only jobs opened up for people of color and the Black middle class doubled in size by the late 1980s, so did the collectors’ market for Black memorabilia, including racially charged memorabilia.

The sheer magnitude of it attests to how ferociously the forces of post-Civil War backlash wanted to put Black men and women back in our “place,” suppress our political power and erase our culture, even as some of them enjoyed our music.

For example, thanks to one friend, I now have a toothpick dispenser shaped like an alligator with a single toothpick in its mouth, which features the head of a horrified minstrel as a handle.

I also have a coin bank figurine of a red-jacketed bellhop with a coin in its outstretched hand that, with a flip of one of its ears, lifts the coin to his opening mouth.

and concludes with this prudent advice:

Today some of these relics, old and new, can be found in the National Museum of African American History and Culture and even more plentifully in the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.

Founder and curator David Pilgrim says he started out much as I did, with one piece of stereotypical coon-show art that revolted him. But he stuck with it as a useful vehicle for public education. We Americans should try to learn from it, I agree, not bury it.

We are at a historical moment of worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. In this moment of reckoning, we should appreciate what racial souvenirs tell us about how far we have come, so we have a better idea of where we’re going.

George Santayana was right about the past and there are worse things than being offended by it. Rather than trying to bury the past perhaps those who find our past intolerably painful owe it to themselves to find a country without such a past. If they can find one.

2 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Seems like there is a difference in holding on to those things to remember how bad it used to be, as opposed to holding on to them to glorify the past, when it was really pretty awful.


  • Grey Shambler Link

    Too bad, I thought I liked Clarence Page, but he was holding back. The race hatred is too deep. I know he’s more credentialed and accomplished than I. Probably wealthier by a factor of 50, but he only reiterates what other accomplished Blacks have said, this won’t end until poor white’s faces are dead in the mud. I’m 67 years old, but not all whites are and this will not end well for Blacks who demand deferential law enforcement based on race, reparations, and a return to the quota system for state and federal make work jobs.

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