By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
Just in time for Black History Month, “Black Memorabilia” premieres on Independent Lens on PBS beginning February 4. “Black Memorabilia” explores the world of racist material, both antique and newly produced, that propagate demeaning representations of African-Americans and promotes white supremacy.
From industrial China to the rural South to Brooklyn, the film shines a light on those who reproduce, consume and reclaim these racially-charged items, from “Jolly Nigger” banks to Mammy kitchenware, confederate flags, Nazi insignia and other ephemera. Produced and directed by Chico Colvard, “Black Memorabilia” premieres on Independent Lens Monday, February 4, 2019, 10:00 p.m. Chicago time (check local listings) on PBS.
“I grew up with images of the coon, Mammy, buck, sambo, pickaninny, and Blackface characters, portrayed in subservient roles and mocking caricatures,” says filmmaker Colvard. “From Uncle Remus and Aunt Jemima at breakfast, to the Little Rascals, Shirley Temple and Bugs Bunny in Blackface on Saturday morning TV, to Uncle Ben staring at me from the cupboard – these exaggerated and demeaning representations of African-Americans were alien to the hard-working and dignified people I knew.”
At the intersection of international commerce, racial identity, and historical narrative, “Black Memorabilia” explores the meaning of these objects and questions their continued production. The film visits a Chinese factory that manufactures reproductions of racist Black memorabilia and a flea market in Raleigh, North Carolina, where vendors and consumers gather to buy, sell and trade a variety of racist, confederate and KKK collectibles. From there the film travels to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, NY, where African-American artist Alexandria Smith uses racial minstrel show tropes to strip them of their power.
I was able to screen this documentary beforehand, and I was just astonished at the images and situations presented.
In China, the iron workers perform back-breaking work in order to produce these items that are shipped all over the world. The vendor in North Carolina admits that she may have misgivings about trading in these items, but she also admits that this is her livelihood—and sadly there is a market for them at every festival she attends. She contends that it is real Black history, even while showing an order form for a KKK robe that is part of her inventory. There were even robes available for sale for the horses.
On the “re-claim” end, Smith says she uses Blackface in her performances, as her way of lessening the power of those images, and addressing cultural appropriation, as well as the racist cartoons, about which we are all familiar. Smith, who is Black, loosely echoes the assertions of the white vendor from North Carolina when Smith says that “negating these tools also negates history.” She adds: “I try to take ownership of it and control and power away from those that were using it to hurt us.” There are also sentiments that Blackface is an American thing.
At the end of the documentary, however, there is a slight sea change in how at least one person feels about how these racist, stereotypical images, whose demand has soared globally, continue to permeate society.
“Chico Colvard’s film traces the modern trade of objects that are the physical embodiment of cultural stigma and the literal objectification of people into racial stereotypes,” said Lois Vossen, Independent Lens executive producer. “At times uncomfortable and often unexpected, “Black Memorabilia” is a thought-provoking, stimulating addition to our nation’s ongoing conversations about how we think and talk about race.
Chico pushes the boundaries of documentary form as he explores where these objects come from, what they mean to us, why they persist, who profits from them, and how their meaning can be reclaimed.”
Visit the “Black Memorabilia” page on Independent Lens featuring more information about the film, which will be available for online viewing on the site beginning February 5. This film is presented on “free television,” so there is an opportunity for all to view it.
About the Filmmaker
Chico Colvard (Director/Producer) teaches Race, Law and Media-related courses in Boston. The Founding Curator of the UMB Film Series, he is also the founding member of C-LineFilms, which produces short and long form documentaries as well as online commercial content. His feature doc, “Family Affair,” premiered in competition at Sundance and was the first film acquired by Oprah Winfrey for her cable channel, OWN. The film streamed on Netflix, iTunes and other online outlets and screened at festivals and aired on TV stations around the world. Colvard is a two-time Sundance Fellow, WGBH Filmmaker-in-Residence, Firelight Media Fellow, and Flaherty Fellow, and is a frequent guest speaker, moderator, festival panelist and juror.
About Independent Lens
Independent Lens is an Emmy® Award-winning weekly series airing on PBS Monday nights at 10:00 p.m. The acclaimed series, with Lois Vossen as executive producer, features documentaries united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement and unflinching visions of independent filmmakers. Presented by ITVS, the series is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional funding from PBS, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For more info, visit pbs.org/independentlens. Join the conversation:facebook.com/independentlens and on Twitter @IndependentLens.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader Newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.”