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What are Black Collectibles?

Lumara Lee
Lumara Lee

Black collectibles are items of Americana that resemble the image of a black person or which are made by a black person. A wide selection of ethnic collectibles can often be found in antique stores. These vintage items include housewares, postcards with artwork or photos of African-Americans, mammy figurines, memorabilia featuring well-known black actors and musicians, and artwork created by blacks. Some of these objects were made by hand, and many were mass produced.

Items featuring the images of blacks were popular from around the 1880s until the late 1950s. The earlier black collectibles often portrayed blacks in a disparaging manner, with exaggerated features and postures intended to connote inferiority and laziness. As beliefs changed and African-Americans were more accepted and welcomed into the mainstream, the way in which blacks were depicted changed. The skin tones on these black collectibles became lighter, the images of black women became thinner, and the objects transformed from being derogatory to merely being representative.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Images of Aunt Jemima and other mammy representations are prevalent in black Americana. Dolls, whisk brooms, and housewares often depicted this stereotypical image of a black female servant. Little Black Sambo is another figure commonly seen in black collectibles. Depictions of Little Black Sambo are featured in children's story books, old record albums, postcards, and other objects.

Housewares are the most common black collectibles. These objects include cookie jars, spoon rests, salt and pepper shakers, toothpick holders, and pitchers. Vintage tea towels, pot holders, tins, labels, and signs featuring African-Americans are also fashionable among collectors of black Americana.

Cast iron mammy coin banks are popular with aficionados of black collectibles. The stereotypical style of dress was painted on these banks, and often the mammy sported an apron and kerchief. These banks are so popular that reproductions have been made that look like the genuine article. Buyers of black collectibles must beware of reproductions being sold as antiques and should learn how to discern the difference.

Some people believe that black collectibles are insulting and that collecting them helps perpetuate the days of discrimination. Others appreciate them for their role in history. Some prominent African-Americans have been very open about their collections of black memorabilia and view them as a celebration of their culture. Examining the way African-Americans have been depicted on various objects throughout the years can provide a fascinating journey into the history of the people and the country in which they live.

Discussion Comments


I personally think that many of the black collectibles are a reflection of the black people's culture. Yes, it was a time of discrimination, but they were making contributions in music, play writing, and art.

It's true that there are many collectibles that portray blacks (like Aunt Jemima) as servants in the house. I don't think that the majority of blacks today would take offense at these collectibles.

Blacks aren't the only group of Americans who are stereotyped by their pasts with "negative" memorabilia. The Native Americans, the hillbillies, and the Irish are some examples.


I had a friend of mixed race whose mother had a small collection of black mammy typed collectibles. They struck me as kind of weird, but she thought they were sort of amusing in addition to being historical and valuable. To each their own, I guess.


@EricRadley- I suppose the concept of black collectible pieces could be seen the way you put it. To me that do not do that, but I admit it is definitely more positive to see them as a sign of how far black people have come, rather than just a reminder of their struggles with racism in the past.


@ALevine - Sorry, but I don't agree. Overall, black figurines or collectibles symbolize the struggle that early African-Americans went through and more importantly their triumph to become recognized as normal people just like anybody else. If you want to make a World War II comparison, I would say it's probably better to compare it to Jewish artifacts that tell of their tragedy and survival rather that blatant Nazi relics that only serve to remind us of a very sinister group of people.


@alianor - I see what you're saying, but to me the whole idea of having a collection of black figurines or collectables just seems a bit crass, given the emotional history of the people who suffered during that time. Imagine if someone had an entire collection of Nazi memorabilia, simply for the sheer historical value or symbolism. Don't you think many others would have issues with that?


@lonelygod - I definitely agree and I also think that collecting historical memorabilia should be done with a certain amount of sensitivity. For example, some people (regardless of race) may find it interesting to have black Americana collectibles simply for the historical importance that it symbolizes. It's a great way to show kids and future generations how much views have changed since then.


@wander - Interesting question. That is one that has been asked for ages and will likely still be puzzled over long into the future. The trouble is that it is a fine line.

One the one hand these artifacts are worth preserving and remembering because they are a part of an important historical record. To erase them is to blur the truth of racism. This also reduces the chance for scholarship because there is less to study.

But there is definitely a risk that these items can be exploited so that their original message comes to the front. There is also the risk that they will be used so ironically that the pain and violence they are representations of will be forgotten. They are also real reminders of racism for people who lived through that era. There are lots of complicated and potentially negative uses for these objects.

So I think it takes a lot of discretion and respect when we are dealing with these objects. They should be saved and displayed but only with the intention to educate and to spark discussion.


@wander - I think that with any historical memorabilia there is the chance of it having some sort of negative connotation. Black collectibles come from a time when the images presented of a people were grossly caricatured, but that is really no different from how any other culture that wasn't white was portrayed.

Often I think groups forget that pretty much everyone was discriminated against, and quite a few suffered abuse when the European settlers made their way around the globe. Keeping black collectibles as a record of that time for me isn't a bad thing. It just falls under the realm of something of historical significance, like a museum piece.


Black collectibles are an interesting kind of memorabilia that has been adopted by many in the African American community, despite the connotations that many of the pieces have. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg are just a few of the celebrities that find black collectibles an important part of American history and enjoy acquiring pieces.

It seems to me that it is OK for African Americans to collect black collectibles, but it becomes a bit more questionable when the pieces are spotted in the house of white suburbanites. When you start to consider how hotly contested the significance of the pieces are to our modern-day thinking, it is no wonder how black collectibles have become an issue.

Do you think that black collectibles are a symbol of an age of oppression that best be forgotten, or simply pieces of historical significance?

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