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To preserve or not to preserve

The question raised by black Americana

by Virginia Broich

        Black Americana. Black memorabilia. Blackface. Blacks.

        Usually nobody objects to preserving history, but collectors of black Americana are divided over the issue.  

        As the More Than McCoys website puts it, much black Americana "depicted African Americans in a prejudicial, stereotypical, and derogatory manner, especially from the 1900s to the 1950s."  

        And that's where the controversy over preservation lies.

        Carol Dawson, a teacher and consultant for the Center for Excellence in Teaching in St. Paul, knows what its like to go through the turmoil of deciding  whether to collect items recalling  slavery, the limited opportunities alloted  blacks, and the stereotyped, exaggerated images made  of black Americans.  She once collected black Americana but stopped when a relative came to visit and pointed out the derogatory and demeaning nature of her collection.

        One of Dawson's artifacts is a box of Gold Dust Twins washing powder, a product her mother remembered as a child.

        Dawson said, "These were the only public images of Blacks. These are the images my mother grew up with."

        Goldie and Dustie were the Gold Dust Twins, a trademark developed by the M.K. Fairbank Company of Chicago for a soap powder that for decades was the most popular in America. The box Dawson owns dates to the early 1900s, when the Twins logo changed to black silhouettes.

        In a 1916 McCall's magazine ad for "Gold Dust, the busy cleanser," Goldie and Dustie seem to be cleaning everything in the house -- windows, sinks, pots and pans, refrigerators, door sills, and tile floors.  Beneath the brand name are the words, "Passed and Approved by the Housewives of America."

        "That's what we were -- the busy cleaners, the domestics. These images perpetuated African American stereotypes," Dawson said. Today Gold Dust Twins boxes sell for anywhere from $125-$250.

        Not all blacks feel demeaned by black Americana.

        "African Americans should not define themselves by these negative images of the past," said Ira Sims. His grandmother introduced him to antiques, and he continues to buy and sell black Americana.

        Sims and his wife, Julie Gubbin, owner of Antiquified in northeast Minneapolis, have a large display of black Americana at their shop.

        Sims said, "There's nothing in this case that defines me. The typical stereotypes -- big lips, big eyes -- are derogatory, but a McCoy cookie jar in the shape of a mammy is part of black Americana." Depending on age, condition, and demand, Sims said, these cookie jars sell anywhere from $125-$4,000.

        "Look at this postcard," Sims said. "The woman picking cotton is smiling." He saw the other postcards in the seven-shelf display case as great art.  Sims pointed to an illustration of a black woman scolding a white child.  "That was something that was not done in earlier times," he noted.  African Americans had been taught not to talk back to white people.

        "For blacks, it's always helpful for us to understand how our history was viewed," Ira explained. "Black Americana tells a story of where we were and where we are now. It is to be shared. We cannot act like it never existed. If we did, we would be missing a large part of our history and culture."

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