Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hide the wound

I remember "Mammy" images from my childhood.  Objects like cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers, etc.  I was a little kid, I didn't think much of them, any more than I considered "Aunt Jemima" a clearly racist caricature.

Sometime in the '80's, I took a weekend trip with friends to New Orleans.  Stayed in the French Quarter in a B&B with real French doors (the narrow ones, each about 12" wide, the whole opening no bigger than a standard door opening), listened to jazz in the Preservation Hall, ate beignets at Cafe Du Monde, the whole spiel.  And I came across a lot of "Mammy" figures that I hadn't seen since my childhood.  I was really convinced they'd been swept away sometime in the '70's, but there they were, larger than life and twice as ugly.

I put it down to the South changing far more slowly than I had wanted to realize.  The "n-word" finally was expunged from public discourse, but "Mammy" took a bit longer to go away.  I remember it on wall hangings (objects meant to be displayed), towels, even aprons, if memory serves.  And lots and lots of objects, though I don't remember ever seeing a cookie jar.

And now they're back, selling for four figures on eBay and other web outlets.  They are extremely racist, no less so than cartoons of blacks with balloon lips and bulging white eyes.  But apparently the generation buying them doesn't realize that.   They couldn't have nostalgia for them, so it must be just the novelty, and the rarity.  We are less overtly racist than before, but that doesn't make us any less racist than before.

I have thought of buying something on that New Orleans trip 3 decades ago, just for old time's sake, just for the nostalgia factor.  I knew better, even then.  I was repulsed by the items, and it didn't make it better to see them in more than one store.  Repulsed and attracted, because they were a childhood memory, because I thought they'd been lost forever.  But being a childhood memory, I knew what they were, and I knew why I was repulsed by them, even as they stirred memories of more innocent, or really naive, times.

We carry that naïveté with us, still, as a shield, as a sword, as a defense against being called "racist."  But just as ignorance of the law is no defense, being clueless is no excuse.

I do despair of ever healing this hidden wound, as long as we insist on keeping it hidden.

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