From industrial China, to the American rural South, to New York City, filmmaker Chico Colvard’s documentary “Black Memorabilia” sheds light on a mostly unknown, if disconcerting, present-day market for antique and newly produced racist materials. There is a thriving trade in degrading representations of African Americans, from “Jolly Nigger” banks, to “Mammy” kitchenware, as well as the more commonplace Confederate flags, Nazi insignia and other ephemera. Colvard turns his camera onto the disparate group of people connected by their engagement with this exchange, to understand why it continues to thrive.
Colvard, who teaches race, law and media related courses at Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston, recollects growing up with racist images. “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 hardworking and dignified people I knew,” he said.
And while the general assumption might be that these problematic representations are relics of Jim Crow America, collected by enthusiasts of all stripes, Colvard would discover that there exists a global market right now for these items that is sustained by their reproduction in factories all over the world.
“It started when I would visit antiques stores and stumble upon these objects, thinking that they were rare finds, only to discover, over the course of several years, how really naïve I was,” the filmmaker said. “I knew that there was a demand for the antiques, but then I started to notice an uptick in the presence of these things, maybe 15 years ago. And so I investigated.”
As Internet usage begun to rapidly permeate culture, Colvard’s search took him to places he’d never been able to access otherwise, and what he discovered would shock him. In addition to the preponderance of these items on e-commerce sites like Ebay, Colvard started to notice attempts to sanitize them. As the filmmaker said, “Uncle Ben goes from the butler to ‘CEO of the company’; Aunt Jemima, the stereotypical ‘Mammy’, who went from rocking a doo-rag to a jheri curl in the 80’s, now has a bob and has lost some weight; and the ‘Jolly Nigger Bank’ became the ‘Jolly Negro’ bank, and then later, it’s just the jolly bank! So I started to notice that there was an erasure of the origins of these images and what they represent, but yet, they are still on full display.”
The film, divided into three chapters – “Reproduction,” “Consumption” and “Reclamation” – opens in a factory outside Shijiazhuang, in North China’s Hebei Province, which manufactures cheap knockoffs of racist artifacts. Finding the factory was a challenge for Colvard, who spent over a year researching. “For the life of me, I could not find a place, or anyone who could tell me where these things were being reproduced,” he said. So he created a fictitious company and registered it on TradeKey – a global B2B ecommerce platform that connects manufacturers with companies looking to outsource various kinds of services.
Said Colvard, “For example, my fictitious company’s profile would say that I’m looking for major manufacturing plants that could produce, let’s say, 1,000 of certain items. And then, companies in India, Mexico, China, wherever, respond and say, ‘We can fill your order.’ That’s how I came to this particular place in China.”
And when he arrived, it wasn’t quite what he expected. “I had imagined a sterile environment, with assembly lines, conveyor belts, and people with a very detached relationship to these things,” Colvard said. But instead, he was met with what he described as a location in the middle of a cornfield, and people with a more personal connection to the objects they were reproducing, who questioned the social consequences of the distribution of the items, while still being realistic about their need to earn a living.
From there, the film travels to a flea market in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the objects are traded. Here, the film illustrates just how much of a demand there still is for these memorabilia, which explains the existence of the factories that reproduce much cheaper versions of the originals. And it’s a demand that Colvard has seen increase dramatically since the election of Donald Trump.
“I think they’re sort of like MAGA hats to some,” he said. “The availability of these items isn’t elusive anymore, and sort of codifies racism in America. It’s a lot like pornography. Nobody is screaming, ‘I’m a racist!’; but then their actions speak otherwise.”
The film does concede that it’s a more complex circumstance, however. “I realized that we have to move beyond the perverse attraction and absolute objection to these things, and the people that have a relationship to them,” Colvard said, facing a further complicated matter when he discovered that there are a surprisingly high number of people of African descent who gather and collect these items, in addition to whites.
Realizing that, as a storyteller, these incongruous narratives would add layers to the film, Colvard said, “There’s the idea that if you own, make or sell these things, you are racist. I don’t believe that’s true. But I also don’t think that you’re totally absolved either, just because you’re a nice person.”
Colvard’s camera does not judge or indict his subjects, nor does he unpack his own feelings about the memorabilia. His stated approach was to subvert any expectations that come with him being a black filmmaker handling such racist subject matter, suggesting that a white filmmaker wouldn’t be burdened with similar assumptions. “I resisted being the ‘angry black man’,” he said. “It’s not that I’m not angry. I am. But I thought this conversation could go further if I did something a little bit more unexpected.”
The documentary ends its expedition in Brooklyn, NY, where African-American performance artist Alexandria Smith uses racist minstrel tropes in an attempt to strip them of their power. It’s a tightrope act because the boundary between reclaiming and perpetuating can get blurry, especially in 2019. It harkens back to the years following the abolishment of slavery, when black American entertainers began to openly engage with racial minstrelsy, although more as a means of survival, in the face of limited options. But for Smith, maybe that’s essentially the point; that options for black performers a century later are still limited, and perpetuating minstrel-era stereotypes remains a path to fame for black artists.
For Colvard, whose debut feature “Family Affair,” premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, the multi-year journey has been revealing but also exhausting. And while he has no plans to further explore the subject of black memorabilia in future work, he’s not ruling it out entirely either.
Describing it as a somewhat cathartic experience, he said, “I’ve had to rethink the relationships I’ve had with this stuff throughout my life – from being completely oblivious as a kid, to my college years when I was so enraged that I was determined to remove it all from the world, to now having a little more nuanced understanding. So we’ll see.”
A thought-provoking work that stimulates ongoing discussions about how we think about race, “Black Memorabilia” premieres on the PBS documentary series Independent Lens, Monday, February 4, 2019.