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.