THE BLOG
04/30/2007 08:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Toms, Coon and Mammy Home Decorating

Doris Moore's first thought probably was it was a joke when she looked at the label on her newly purchased couch. Whatever amusement or puzzlement she may have initially had quickly turned to horror when her 7-year old daughter asked her what the words meant. The tag on the dark brown couch's upholstery clearly read "nigger brown." Ms. Moore hit the roof. The furniture store, the supplier, the manufacturer, and the shipping company feigned ignorance or passed the buck. Finally, Kingsoft Corp., a Chinese software firm, admitted the error, but loudly protested that there was no racial malice intended. The company blamed the racial slur on a computer glitch.

The tag on the couch may have been a silly mistake, but there's no mistake that swapping, selling and collecting the huge array of racist furnishings and home decorative pieces is a brisk and lucrative business. These items adorn thousands of American homes. There 's a Coon Chicken Inn dinner plate, and a little Black Sambo Block. They sell for hundreds of dollars. An original Aunt Jemima Cookie Jar can net upwards of $2000. There are hundreds of counterfeit jars on the market. They sell for only a few dollars. The original Jolly Nigger Bank made in the early 1900s sells for hundreds of dollars at auctions. The hundreds of fakes of this grotesque little item are sold at swap meets and on the Internet for a few dollars.

Then there's the Sambo Dart Board. The All Metals Products Company, an outfit out of Michigan, originally made it in 1940. Fifty years later the AAA Sign Company, an Ohio company reproduces the item as a decorative tin sign and mass markets it at about $15 dollars. AAA Sign also makes and sells hundreds of wall clocks, ashtrays, and plates that are emblazoned with choice depictions of Sambos, Mammies, Toms and Coons. There's more than one kitchen in America where the cook light ups their stove with matchboxes that have Nigger Head Shrimp, Nigger Head oysters, and Mammy Brand Oranges on the box cover.

The sale in racist furnishings is so good that many other countries have jumped into the business. The fake Jolly N Banks, for instance, are made in Taiwan exclusively for the American market. Japan and Korea manufacturers have also churned out thousands of racially offensive products. The racist couch that shocked Moore was made in China.

These items are more than just historical curiosity pieces. They are almost certainly the butt of jokes, scorn, ridicule, and are used to degrade African-Americans by many that sit, lie, or gaze at these items in private homes. But that's exactly what they were originally intended to do.
The sale of racist collectibles with no disclaimer, or warning, and with no attempt made to sensitize buyers and sellers to the historic damage these items still wreak on African-Americans is a tragic mix of commercial irresponsibility and racially tinged indifference.

It also reflects the dangerous and mistaken notion that racist collectibles that portray the tom, coon, and mammy image of blacks merely reflect a by-gone era when blacks were viciously and publicly racially mugged. A century ago, newspapers and magazines had great fun ridiculing, lampooning, butchering and assailing blacks in articles and cartoons. They were branded as "lazy," "brutes," "savages," "imbeciles," and "moral degenerates." plantation songs, tales, and slave caricatures were wildly popular up until World War II. The Uncle Remus "darky" character immortalized in Walt Disney's classic, Song of the South, was wildly popular on the screen, in tunes, and in stories then, and today as well.

Quaker Oats continued to peddle the bandanna wearing, fat, dark-skinned mammy image of black womanhood on its pancake boxes until 1989. That era is far from past. Legions of college fraternities have been nailed for holding slave auctions, minstrel shows, and displaying the Confederate flag in front of frat dorms, and for their members sporting the flag on tee shirts. A lengthening parade of politicians, sports figures, celebrities, and shock radio talk jocks have been called on the carpet for making racist wise cracks, jokes, tongue slips, and flat out slurs of African-Americans.

Don Imus got the ax after the national furor finally convinced top sponsors to cut and run from the shock jock. That sealed his doom. But the battle against racist stereotypes in TV and films has been brutal and endless.

Museums, art houses, and private collectors, including many African-Americans, routinely buy, sell, and swap racist furnishings too. They use the racist pieces to educate the public about the terror of America's vile, and shameful racist past. They also act as a constant reminder that that past can rear its hideous head time and again. However, thousands of other Americans that plop their dollars down for racist furnishings, as well as the manufacturers of them, aren't interested in their historic value, or in making and using them to educate others on the danger of racial intolerance. They're interested in making a buck even if means demeaning blacks. That can't be blamed on a racist computer.

New America Media Associate Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His
new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.