InKevin Bruneau found and purchased an antique wind-up toy. "Jazzbo Jim" might be a musician playing on a roof, but he's much more than a simple plaything. This tin toy is an example of minstrel memorabilia — historical objects that portray negative stereotypes of African-Americans. Such racist items were commonplace (though typically not seen as racist) when made in the 19th and 20th centuries. These caricatures of African-Americans reinforced prejudices found throughout American society during those times.
The term "minstrel" comes from American minstrel shows. These shows included skits, songs, and dancing, and starred white actors performing in blackface — or, after the Civil War, African-Americans performing in blackface. Minstrel memorabilia are also sometimes referred to as Jim Crow memorabilia, "Jim Crow" being shorthand for the segregationist laws and customs that oppressed African Americans from the 1870s until the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.
With the decline of Jim Crow, these depictions of African-Americans were recognized as offensive, and shrank from view. However, stereotypical representations continue to exist, albeit in subtler forms. Echoes can be seen in the advertising of Aunt Jemima's pancakes and Uncle Ben's rice, as well as in popular film, television, and music.
Today, our relationship with these racially charged objects remains complicated. Many African-Americans are serious collectors of minstrel memorabilia. One such collector is Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page. In May 2011, Justice Page visited ANTIQUES ROADSHOW's event in Minneapolis. The piece he brought in for appraisal was a — an important piece of American and African-American history. After the appraisal, : "to keep track of and capture history, so that our children are aware of and understood what it means to be African American in this country." This is particularly important to him as a judge, so that he doesn't "forget the importance of equal opportunity, and the fact that things haven't always been equal."
Professor David Pilgrim turned his childhood hatred of these offensive objects into a collection, and turned his collection into the , located at Ferris University in Big Rapids, Michigan. This museum takes care to contextualize all its pieces, and generate meaningful conversations. In an , Professor Pilgrim explains the significance that these collectibles carry, when even "an ashtray can be propaganda. In a deliberate way, it can help shape perceptions about a group of people. It can support everyday practices and official policies against those people. If you didn't want black people to vote, to live in your neighborhood, or to marry outside of their own race, these objects became a way to shape those attitudes."
Minstrel memorabilia — toys, advertisements, books, music, and movies — can range from shockingly offensive to subtly insulting. These objects are vivid reminders of an unequal era, and their collectors are aware of the cultural weight such pieces carry.
To learn more about minstrel memorabilia:
Written by MARKET WARRIORS senior producer Sarah Grafman.