Old (and Not So Old) Weird (and Not So Weird) America

We’re visiting Becca’s sister, her husband, and their 6-month-old twins in North Carolina this week. Initially drawn to Durham/Duke, Leila&Sebastian und Sasha&Max now live in a small-ish town called Burlington, in an old mill house they rebuilt themselves (with a little help from their friends).

Yesterday, we escaped some rainy morning blues by heading to a nearby antiques mall. It was, to say the least, a trip. The building, essentially a warehouse (or maybe formerly a supermarket), houses hundreds of individual stalls, each of them a little shrine to some collector’s material muses.

Amusing indeed. But also, utterly utterly odd. I mean, was something like this “Jolly Chimp” actually intended to amuse (as opposed to, terrify) children?

Beyond marvelling at such oddities and artifacts in their own right, I couldn’t help but be struck by how the thorough juxtaposition of tchotchkes from across the ages seemed to flatten even as it called attention to the differences across the mythified decades of our collective past and their symbols, their peculiar fixings — often, in this case, in the form of cheap commodities — of the imagination of self, other, past, and future.

How easily the dated images from the 80s and 90s sit alongside counterparts from the 50s, 60s, 70s, &c —

Or how “African” art of various sorts (or carved wooden exotica more generally) found space alongside kitchen kitsch and cross-stitched masterpieces —

Perhaps unsurprising, given all the dirty laundry on display, America’s racist representations of itself also reared their ugly heads. Most frequently in the form of the mammy —

yes, alongside a wooden watermelon

Another strange refraction of racial representation was embodied by the following curiosity (of which I spotted two specimens): Big John, “the Chimpee Chief.” Given current controversies here in present-day post-racial America, I think it’s not too much to ask you to read this, with me (and Al Sharpton), as an insidious if everyday example of substituting one dehumanized subaltern for another —

And yet despite reservations aplenty (no pun intended), I admit that there were a couple objects that were quite arresting — charming in a different manner than those above, if still tainted with resonances of the primitive. Take, for example, this amazing “outsider ark” (and don’t miss the Scooby Doo detail), which is sui generis if anything ever was —

Will I forever regret not picking it up for a mere $50? Would I forgive myself if I did?

No matter, already made my day.

5 thoughts on “Old (and Not So Old) Weird (and Not So Weird) America

  1. I am mystified; what sort of joke is “the pair of white kids”? Is it a brand name of glove?

    I also can’t help but note that the expression on the mammy’s face looks an awful lot like the expression on every character in bad comic strips like “Blondie” when someone has just said something zany (and therefore registering a kind of “normal” shock at the zaniness’ zanity). It’s a weird position for the mammy character to be in; shouldn’t the others be expressing shock at *her* antics? I would expect the disapproving/shocked gaze to be going the other way (iow, the caricature as object of spectacle, rather than actually gazing back).

  2. Thought you’d appreciate that one, Aaron. Great reading of the “zany” look.

    I think the joke is pretty straightforward. The black women expects the white women to ask if she’s interested in a pair of white gloves, and the white women is just looking for a mammy. In that light, the indignation is correct on the face of the would(n’t)-be mammy. But you’re right that putting such a look on her face seems like something of a reversal given the sambo-overtones, as if the artist is sympathetic?

  3. Yeah, that’s it (I was thinking kid-size gloves). Though it only gets weirder then. I’m not sure “sympathetic” is quite right (presumes too much conscious understanding), but there certainly is an interesting dissonance between the assumption that she’s a mammy (which the counter-woman and the artist share) and the fact that she is not (illustrated by her status as paying customer and the self-assertion of the “shocked at zaniness” look). I wonder when it was made; after all, the mammy image dates from a period before the idea of a white counterwoman serving a black customer would be “normal.” Or maybe that’s the wrong question, since the mammy stereotype isn’t just *from* the past but is also an attempt to re-imagine that past. So we then have an image of the past being jolted into the present,and the two being found — in practice — to conflict. Or something.

  4. is she a mammy or just a garden variety “coon”
    and is her shocked look, if it isn’t just a coon face because she is being depicted sympathetically or is the artist saying”aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda”
    “although the monkey is dressed in silk, it remains a monkey”
    and is it mocking the pretensions of coon mammies who think they can be accepted by decent folk?

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