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Demeaning displays from heart-wrenching history

By: Pauline Nevins
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One of the last places I expected to see knick-knacks from the Jim Crow era was in a store set back on a winding two-lane road outside of Auburn. Those items peered at me from inside a massive glass-fronted, mirrored cabinet.

On display was a rack of five spice jars; containers for salt, pepper, and vinegar, and large “Mammy” cookie jars. All had coal black faces with thick bright red lips and enlarged whites of their eyes — demeaning caricatures of Africans and African Americans.

I asked “Sally,” the store owner, if I could take a photograph of the collection, letting her know that I was a writer. She agreed and surprised me by saying she was glad I’d stopped in. She asked if I had an opinion about the display. Her son, she said, got upset when he saw it.

“He told me I should remove them, that the items are insulting to African Americans and represent an ugly period in America. I said that I had been conflicted, but when I questioned my customers, none were offended. They considered them Americana — nostalgic representations of American history.

“My son asked what color skin did these customers have?’’

Sally lowered her eyes.

“White,” she answered.

Then she gave me a concerned look and asked, “How did you feel when you saw them?”

I told her I was startled and had to turn away from the display. They had brought back a painful memory from my childhood in England.

“Have you heard of a gollywog?” I asked Sally. She shook her head. I told her this personal story:

A gollywog is a black rag doll, a caricature of an American minstrel, I explained. This image was the trademark of the Robertson Company, the most popular jam maker in England in the 1950s. Golly, as he was known, grinned on the label of the jam pot that sat on the table in our house every Sunday at teatime. One of my siblings would point to the jar, then point to me, and all the kids would giggle. I had frizzy black hair and was the only brown face at a table of Irish faces. I’d cry, which guaranteed the teasing would continue.

I went on to tell Sally that I’d read in The Atlantic about a Jim Crow Museum housed at the Ferris State University in Michigan. For four decades its founder, Dr. David Pilgrim, has collected racist artifacts — signs, pictures, and knick-knacks (like the ones in her shop) — that belittle Africans and their American descendants. He’s also created a traveling exhibit that includes objects that subjugate women, gays, Jewish Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian-Americans, and poor whites. Dr. Pilgrim explains that he uses “objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.”

I told Sally, that if the price were right, I’d purchase the collection and donate it to the Ferris Museum. She said she’d contact the out-of-town owner.

On my ride home I remembered how surprised I was to read that Dr. Pilgrim's traveling exhibit included poor whites as a group subject to ridicule. Then I recalled when my editor sensitized me to a stereotype that I had used. She was upset by my book’s mention of “… toothless mountain men, armed with shotguns … accompanied by dueling banjos,” — referencing the film classic, “Deliverance.” She grew up in Georgia where the movie was made. Her community was appalled by the derogatory stereotyping of white southerners of that region. That thought never occurred to me. I revised the section.

I read that the Robertson Company also made a change. After 90 years, it finally removed their golliwog logo in 2002.

The golliwog is off the jam jars but not the front pages. A 2013 article in BBCNews reported on responses to a shop in Brighton, England, selling drink mats depicting Golliwog illustrations. One 72-year-old woman thought there was, “no harm in them. They are nostalgic ...”

A Black History Group member told of his experience. In the 1960s he’d walked around not knowing someone had stuck a Robertson golliwog label on his back. "It was used to tease us, and it was used as a racist term."

The Telegraph online reported a few years ago that Carol Thatcher, daughter of the late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, made what she called a “silly joke.” She referred to the French tennis play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (who looks like a young Mohammed Ali), as looking like a golliwog. She said she was merely comparing Tsonga to the doll she had as a child. I believe she received the clueless award.

When I visited Sally’s store the following week, I learned the owner wanted the ridiculous price of a thousand dollars for the offensive ceramics.

Sally had already removed the collection from the cabinet. They had been packed up and put out of sight in a back room.

Pauline Nevins is the author of the memoir, “Fudge: The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby” and a member of Auburn's Gold Country Writers. Her email address is pond@usamedia.tv.