- Reclaiming Culture or Commodifying Contempt?
In the two newest books about black memorabilia, authors Patricia Turner and Kenneth Goings take a scholarly look at the trend toward collecting material artifacts of American racism. Turner and Goings are especially concerned with a set of black artifacts produced in the United States for white consumption in the aftermath of slavery. These include the infamous Aunt Jemima cookie jars and black lawn jockeys that have been an anathema to generations of black people.
After looking at the historical representations of black men, women, and children, both authors explore the current relationship of these contemporary images to the on-going process of commodification and capitalism. Goings and Turner argue that if whites can no longer buy black people, they want to be able to purchase “the black experience.” Both authors— [End Page 746] who are also collectors—insist that black Americans can empower themselves by buying their kinfolk back.
For decades, these artifacts were viewed as symbols of racial hatred and inferiority within the black intellectual community. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, these objects have been appropriated by a new generation of black intellectuals as symbols of a past that must not be forgotten. At the same time, black and white consumers who are not members of the academy have embraced these objects as good investments, profiting from their distorted representations of black culture.
Showing the complexity of the collecting phenomenon, Goings and Turner present a well-argued thesis that cookie jars can be an expression of cultural ideology or a venture in simple economic exploitation. Nay sayers who believe that keeping Aunt Jemima in our kitchen cabinets can’t be compared to keeping Prissy at Tara are two books away from enlightenment.
It is interesting to note that the black artifacts discussed in these texts were created during periods of black resistance. Both Turner and Goings argue that the dissemination of the Aunt Jemima image undermined the political work of leaders such as Ida B. Wells. The company that made Aunt Jemima famous was founded in the early 1890s by a white man named Chris Rutt, who hired Nancy Green, a black woman, to dress in costume and flip pancakes at the 1893 World’s Fair. There are many ironies implicit in the fact that the Colombian Exposition was used to launch Aunt Jemima products. As Turner notes, Nancy Green was flipping pancakes while antilynching advocate Ida B. Wells was distributing a protest pamphlet entitled “The Reason Why: The Colored American is Not in the World’s Colombian Exposition.” Wells and her supporters wanted the public to recognize the inadequacy of the fair’s attention to black Amer-icans. Goings’s text illuminates how this pamphlet was further undermined by another pamphlet written around the same time by Purd Wright entitled, “When the Robert E. Lee Stopped at Aunt Jemima’s Cabin.”
Aunt Jemima’s fictionalized biography is told by an aging Confederate general who returned to the south after twenty years to revisit the best meal he ever had (Goings, 31). According to this “biography,” in 1864, the general and his orderly became separated from the other troops and almost starved to death. On the third day, the starving pair came across a cabin on the Higbee Plantation in Louisiana where the “mammy” fed them better pancakes than they had ever tasted. Years later, the general returned to the cabin and persuaded Aunt Jemima to sell her pancake recipe. This transaction allowed the general to introduce the product to northern [End Page 747] consumers and net sizeable profits (31). Goings notes that it is only in the fictionalized minds of whites that Aunt Jemima would not have joined the migration north, but would have instead remained on her plantation like a “happy” former slave waiting to make pancakes for Robert E. Lee. 1...