Disbelief. Embarrassment. Anger.
That’s the order of emotions I experienced when I came across these postcards. I was in an antique shop in Cannon Falls, a small town in Minnesota. My husband and I spent a weekend there at a quaint bed-and-breakfast. I collect books that are over 100 years old, so I love searching through used books to find items for my collection. These racist images stood out on a shelf crowded with otherwise generic prints such as vintage Pepsi ads, newspapers, publications and promotional materials.
When they first caught my eye, I felt uneasy. It took several seconds before I could even bring myself to pick them up. Eventually the shock wore off and a wave of embarrassment came over me. As a black woman, I was saddened to see such a negative representation of black people. Suddenly I had the urge to hide them before anybody else could set eyes on them.
Quickly, anger displaced my embarrassment.
I was angry that these representations and messages were meant to be amusing. Likewise, I was angry that people decided to make a profit by publishing images that disparaged black people:
- Someone came up with the concept to create a series of cards
- The publisher invested money in the project.
- An artist did the design work.
- A worker ran the printing presses to publish them.
- A store owner made them accessible for sale.
- And someone bought them.
Clearly these weren’t just racist drawings made for a private collection. That would be bad enough, but an entire company was behind these images. Even more, there was a society amenable to accepting them.
Neither of these racist postcards published by the Tichnor brothers of Boston, MA, are date stamped. Similar images though have publish dates between 1945 and 1955. In other words, they appeared well after slavery ended but right before the slow fizzle of Jim Crow laws. An article, penned by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explains the idea behind these images:
As W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” How was the genie of freedom and equality forced back into the bottle of segregation and second-class citizenship? How was it that the emancipated were “moved back again toward slavery” after only a few years “in the sun”?
It turns out the assault was double-barreled: first through a series of Jim Crow laws and court rulings that effectively reversed or neutralized the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the 14th and 15th Amendments (guaranteeing equal protection under the law and outlawing race-based voting discrimination, respectively), and second (and almost simultaneously) through the astonishingly wide distribution of a massive mountain of negative Sambo images, which were intended to naturalize the image of the black person as sub-human and in doing so justify and subliminally reinforce the perverted logic of the separate and unequal system of Jim Crow itself. The assault was devastatingly effective and brilliantly evil.
Of course I bought the postcards. I wanted to make sure this part of our history wouldn’t be forgotten.
Before making this discovery at that antique store, I knew about Jim Crow laws and segregation. Furthermore, I had seen images of Al Jolson, actors in black face, and minstrel shows. However I had never seen anything like these postcards. It reminded me that we exclude so much from American history books and lessons. We’re satisfied to a degree with learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. during Black History Month. And we settle for a watered down history of the Civil Rights Movement. Almost all lessons regarding slavery center around the Civil War. The callousness of treating people like beasts of burden, the crushing events and consequence of the slave trade, and the economics of slavery are downplayed. Undoubtedly, I find these postcards repugnant. At the same time, it’s more disturbing to think of how we neglect this part of our history.
Just one generation ago, people produced, sold, purchased, and sent these postcards through the mail. My mother and father came into this world in the 1950’s. My mother, born and raised in Philadelphia, was teased about her dark skin. Meanwhile, my father grew up in Alabama, not too far from Mobile. He remembers “colored only” signs over bathrooms and water fountains. They lived hundreds of miles apart, and yet both experienced racial bias and discrimination. It would be foolish to think that their experiences in no way colored their view of themselves in the world. Views that no doubt, influenced how they raised their children.
People who say racism is no longer an issue perhaps fail to consider how remnants from the past affect us now. It’s similar to telling someone who watched their grandmother die from cancer years ago, that that event has no substantive influence because they themselves aren’t suffering from cancer now. That line of thinking is insensitive and ignorant.
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. -Marcus Garvey.
We need to be grounded in our own history. Otherwise we are easily swayed and lulled to sleep by whitewashed and suspiciously biased accounts of history.
Bottom Line: We need to get woke.