Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Black Memorabilia. It Ain't Kitschy.

I haven’t blogged in a while because I have been sick, and when I am sick I prefer to do silly things like lie down when I have free time (generally when Lovey is asleep).

I want to address two issues today: (1) historical ethnic dolls; and (2) the Democratic National Convention (yes, I am still a Democrat).

On the first issue, I don’t even know that I’m describing it correctly, but here we go. I have a grandmother who makes dolls, many of which are “ethnic.” When Lovey was born, my grandmother sent us a pick-a-ninny [sic] doll, with its own stand and a little tag stating that it was #46 in a series. The attached tag states:

“The dictionary defines the word pick-a-ninny as a ‘small Negro child.’ West Indian slaves used the word ‘pequeno’ referring to small children. In America, before Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, the small slave children’s task was to sort through the cotton bolls and pick out any bits of bark, [sic] or trash. A ‘clean’ bale would bring a higher price when sold by the plantation owner. In America, the slaves referred to these children as Pick-a-ninny [sic].”

The doll itself is about six inches high, wears a gingham red dress and several plaits sticking straight up off her head. She carries a basket and has a cheerful little grin. Ah, slavery. Them was good times, suh!

Anyway, Lovey has just discovered this doll and is quite happy with it. She doesn’t know the significance of it yet, of course. My problem with it is that the word pickaninny has such a derogatory connotation. Ignorant people use it as a racist slur. My larger problem has to do with “black memorabilia” in general. You know, the weird racist shit that people pay money now to collect? What black person in his/her right mind would want something like this? It just seems so sick and self-loathingful to me (yes, I just made that word up). I really don’t understand that mentality.

An ex-boyfriend of mine, who was biracial (half-black, half-Italian-American), had the diagram of the inside of a slave ship tattooed on his arm. It showed these tiny little figures all crammed closely together, like so. I asked him why he would want something like that permanently etched into his skin. He said because we should never forget the horrors of slavery, and he wanted it there as a reminder. (In hindsight, I think he was really into the shock value.) I likened it to a Jewish person having the diagram of a concentration camp on their arm. It made no sense to me then, and, with the benefit of years of accumulated wisdom since, it makes no sense to me now.

The argument I always hear is about re-appropriating these words and images, that “owning” them takes back their power. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to validate something I see as racist. So my concern with the pick-a-ninny doll is that the doll itself is not offensive, but what it represents is.

Am I making sense? I know that I often don’t. And I’m going to have to leave you with that because my sweet cherub just woke up from her nap. More on this next time…

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Dear Lisa,
I came upon this post while doing research on imagery of slave ships, and I have a question regarding it that I would like to ask you over email. I did not see a way to message you privately--would you mind dropping an email to me at Thanks in advance for your time,