Saving Black Americana

His name was Jocko Graves and his sacrifice quite possibly saved George Washington's life. It was Dec. 25, 1776 and, facing disaster, Washington took a desperate chance in attempting to cross the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on the Hessian encampment at Trenton, N.J. It was darkest night in the dead of winter and foggy as well, so steering the boat to the correct area would prove difficult at best.

Washington had an ace up his sleeve, however, in the form of a brave 12-year-old slave named Jocko Graves who stood with lantern and blankets in hand as a stationary beacon to guide Washington's ferry. Of Course, as history indicates, Washington did make it across the river, thanks to the help of Jocko's vigilant stand. Regrettably Jocko did not survive the incident, freezing to death as he stood in place. Washington was so touched by this ultimate sacrifice that he erected a statue of the young boy and placed it on his lawn. Little did he know that this action would result in the appearance of many "lawn jockeys" adorning the front yards of future America.

Jocko's statue is just one representation among many in a genre of art depicting black Americans through heroic or racist lenses; a line of collectible artwork known to many as Black Americana that was still being produced as late as the early 1980s. These pieces represent a de facto world of prejudice; a collection of work long since hidden or forgotten by Americans due to embarrassment or negligence. There is history in this artwork, such as the story of Jocko, of which most present-day Americans are unaware.

According to African-American student and dealer of Black Americana Gerald Diggs, one of the primary reasons many of the once-abundant items are now scarce, and therefore largely unknown to most Americans, is that many of them were bought by wealthy African-Americans in the 1970's and promptly destroyed. Diggs, who is black, sees this as a tragedy for many reasons.

"In my opinion these things were important to both whites and blacks because they force us to be honest with ourselves and our feelings to each other," said Diggs. "The ugliness of hate is only truly broached and dealt with when you bring yourself face to face with it. The destruction of these derogatory pieces serves to turn a social monster that could be faced honestly into a silhouette that hovers over us all, ever more powerful without challenge."

Diggs, who is in the process of writing a book on Black Americana, believes there is something deeper to be found in these pieces; something painful and at the same time oddly beautiful. "Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 'it is not the positive images that made me who I am' and I believe a similar understanding is evident when people see these things. I am fascinated with the detail of work that has gone into building some of the more elaborate pieces. It truly is a testament to what hate can do and how it can manifest itself. I've seen reactions from joy to sorrow to anger when people first see these images. And the kicker is it wasn't that long ago that these pieces were mainstream. People need to wake up to that hard fact," he said.

One of the more surprising facts about Black Americana is that many of the pieces are simply replications of images taken from a select few models. "There are a few stereotypical images that see a lot of use among Black Americana, black supermodels of a sort" explained Diggs. "The reason for this is that it was less expensive and just generally easier to replicate the same image over and over again. Also, it helped to strengthen the racist paradigm: These people all look alike, all do the same things, etc. From the slave's perspective, modeling for one of these artists was just one more day they didn't have to pick cotton and if they were posing with chickens or watermelons or whatever, that might have meant they got to take home some more food that night to their family."

Indeed, according to Diggs, some of America's most successful companies have either used Black Americana images in the past or were somehow involved in the exploitation of blacks in the manufacture and commercialization of their products. "Firestone (Tire Co.) for example, used to be Firestone Plantation and then there is Aunt Jemima maple syrup," said Diggs. "I mean a lot of these companies that used racist iconagraphy have been swallowed up into larger conglomerates, but the influence of the past is still there, and probably always will be as a shadow legacy. Without proof, history can be manipulated to whoever's advantage, and that's why I collect Black Americana and photos. It is a tangible form of an irreconcilable truth that cannot be denied."

Sifting Through a Peculiar Legacy

"People should understand that these images of blacks with exaggerated racial features, such as red-painted full lips and super dark skin, were commonplace in all areas of American life from the period of about 1850's up until about 1930," explained auctioneer Alan Liffman, of New York, N.Y., one of the largest dealers of Black Americana in the country and a self-proclaimed expert in the field of Black Americana. "These were some of the most prolific graphics used in illustrations, in toys, in advertising and such. Blacks of the time were seen by most whites as both comic and servile, so many of these pieces depict blacks being lazy, being chased or chasing something, dancing or stealing chickens or watermelons."

Liffman is quick to point out that blacks are not the only race that received similarly derogatory treatment in artwork of the period. "The Irish were made to look like little leprechaun trolls. Jews were often depicted with severe hook noses and money in hand. Whenever a minority became a threat to the white middle class, they immediately began to show up in these kinds of characatures as salesman and others that would profit off of the whites used the scapegoat illustrations to garner business. A good example would be a company selling apples painting a large, smiling black face on their crates with the pejorative 'sure am good.' What to us may seem prejudice was to earlier Americans just plain good business practice."

What was profitable then is still profitable today in a way the original distributors may never have intended. Black Americana is big business, say people who trade in the merchandise. "These items can be obtained all over the internet," admitted David Markarian, who lives near Idyllwild and an antiques dealer who owns a few pieces of Black Americana. "A lot of Black Americana can be found on eBay and other auction web sites as people who are into collecting these things are either unloading their own collections or are buying up items put up by those who want to unload them, for whatever reason." To substantiate this, Markarian suggested checking auction site "code words" which brought up hundreds of eBay auctions of these kinds of collectibles.

"Some of the things people need to look out for are counterfeits and reproductions," Markarian advised. "Reproductions are certainly available, but if you are in the market for the increasingly rare originals you need to be cautious about what you may be picking up."

Indeed, because of this rarity and the tendency for some to destroy this artwork, Liffman says that, "individual pieces are known to appreciate anywhere from 15-25 percent a year. Americana with the racial perjoritives, such as 'nigger' drawn onto them can fetch even more." When asked how he identifies counterfeits, Liffman acknowledged that, "My 15 years of dealing in Black Americana has made me very familiar with how each item is supposed to look. It's just a matter of knowing what details to look for that will authenticate the piece."

If the use of black stereotypes were such a prevalent theme in the manufacturers' images of yesteryear, why are there so few today and where can they be found? "Most of the bric-a-brac pieces, like the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Remus pottery," relates Liffman "can be found at yard sales and antique stores across the country. Most of the time people are reluctant to put it on display with the other things they have for sale, but when I tell them what I'm looking for they almost always trudge something out for me to look at. They are embarrassed that they own such things and that's one of the reasons many of these things don't often see the light of day."

A Painful Past, An Uncertain Future

Are these pieces vestiges of a racist past that should be mined for the benefit of today's idealistic multiethnic society? With many African-Americans having attained an unparalleled social status, is this truly the best time for these images to make a comeback? Some prominent members of the African-American community definitely think that should be the case. Filmmaker Spike Lee's recent film, "Bamboozled," tells the story of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a hip, young Harvard-educated television writer who is the sole person of color working for an upstart network with floundering ratings. Despite many attempts, Delacroix has yet to achieve any commercial success and is put on the wire by his white boss to come up with a hit or lose his position.

Feeling hopeless, Delacroix decides to present the most outrageous, unbelievable farce he can imagine -- a variety show hosted by "black face" minstrels Manray (Savion Glover) and his sidekick Womack (Tommy Davidson). Incredibly, Delacroix's spoof turns into a ratings gold mine, a cultural phenomenon that has the media critics raving and audiences of all types howling. But, for Delacroix, the runaway success of "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show" is the start of a rapid unraveling.

There is a dynamic continuity between Lee's movie and the artifacts of Black Americana. According to Liffman, many of the background pieces used in the filming of "Bamboozled" were taken from the dealer's personal collection. So it stands that these mementos of a racist past live on in the hearts and minds of many Americans as reminders of something so horrific that it cannot be denied or undone.

It is hard to say what these pockmarks of the past are worth, both in a monetary and a sociological sense. But they are as powerful a part of American history as any other document or icon. They tell the story of one people's struggle to survive and another's to keep them in place. As Diggs put it, "These pieces have a strong energy to them. They force me to be honest about who I am, where I come from and what's outside my front door. They are there to be reconciled with and that's ultimately why I collect them."

Sidebar: Famous Faces Grace Black Americana

They are some of the most famous of cultural icons, and yet few know who they are. People such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, well-known faces and names, but largely unknown beyond that. Their stories give insight into our cultural and business history, showing both the stains of exploitation and the stripes reformation.

Aunt Jemima: There were at least three different Aunt Jemima models. Quaker Oats' first Aunt Jemima was based on the life of Nancy Green, a former slave and famed pancake chef from Kentucky in the late 1880s. During the 1893 Colombian exposition in Chicago, she served more than one million pancakes. Dressed in a uniform of a crisp white apron and red bandanna, her warmth and personality soon captivated a nation. The first Aunt Jemima Doll appeared in 1905, and millions followed.

Originally the spitting image of Green, Aunt Jemima evolved over the next 100 years, as she was re-drawn by various artists, including N.C. Wyeth. The Uncle Moses character was based on Green's real life husband, and other figurines were created using her children as models. The additional figures were rarely, if ever, featured in the company's advertising, and were developed primarily as premiums.

The most recent model (a modernized version has since replaced her face), Rosa Washington Riles, was born in 1901 near Red Oak, Ohio, riles became Aunt Jemima in the 1950s while employed as a cook in the home of a Quaker Oats executive and went out for pancake demonstration at her employer's request. Inspired by her efforts, Quaker Oats commissioned and used a portrait of Riles, which showed a smiling, laughing, good-humored face meant to bring instant thoughts of delicious goodies and the anticipation of steaming hot pancakes smothered with fresh butter and maple syrup.

Riles rose to fame because of her jovial personality. In the beginning of Riles' career as Aunt Jemima, the pancake mix was packaged and sold in one-pound cardboard cartons, with her portrait covering an entire side of the carton. Later redesigns of the package reduced her portrait to a silver-dollar sized medallion in the upper left corner of the box.

Uncle Ben: According to the Uncle Ben's Inc. web site, Uncle Ben was "an African-American rice farmer known to rice millers in and around Houston for consistently producing the highest quality rice." Unfortunately, the site explains, the details of Uncle Ben's life are lost to history, although they seem to be aware that he died sometime before the end of the 1940s, when Gordon L. Harwell, the first president of Converted Rice, Inc. (the predecessor of Uncle Ben's Inc.) and his partner decided to call the rice that they had been supplying exclusively to the Armed Forces during World War II Uncle Ben's Converted Brand Rice.

Amos 'n Andy: In the early 1920s, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden were working at WGN in Chicago as "harmony boys," playing ukulele and piano and singing along providing entertainment in between "happy banter and jesting" for Chicago area listeners. Who came up with the idea to change the format by adding dramatic dialogue is not clear. Gosden and Correll proposed to use their backgrounds in minstrel show by creating what Correll called "a colored comedy" about two black characters called Sam and Henry.

WGN liked the proposal and the program debuted on Jan. 12, 1926. The storyline featured two men from Alabama who came to Chicago to find their fortunes. The program, in serial form, sealed its popularity as listeners tuned in daily to follow the lives of both men. In addition, the Chicago Tribune, which owned WGN, promoted its own program through ads urging listeners to tune in daily to the adventures of the hapless men.

By 1927, the program was so popular, various promotional materials (candy bars, short recordings, books and toys) were in huge demand, well beyond WGN's listening reach. The station was not part of the NBC network and so Gosden and Correll proposed the concept of recording the program on disc and distributing it to radio stations around the country. For reasons still unclear, WGN refused permission to do this.

Judith Waller, program director for the Chicago Daily News' radio station, WMAQ, offered the boys a contract that included distribution rights. The two accepted, but WGN refused to give up the rights to "Sam n' Henry," and "Amos and Andy" were created. The scripts were written by Gosden and Correll; and with only minor changes, the storylines were the same as the previous WGN series.

The impact of the show was phenomenal. At its peak, it was said cities literally came to a halt while the show was broadcast, including shows recorded in the bell tower studio of the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs. While the peak of their popularity came during the '30s, the series remained on the air for nearly 30 years.

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