Stereotyped toys are reminders of overt bigotry of the past

May 05, 1991|By Scott Ponemone

Here are names of some toys that will make many reader squinch: Jazzbo Jim, Tombo Alabama Coon Jigger, Ham and Sam, and Somstepa Coon Jigger. They certainly don't represent the finest hour of American manufacturing history.

The fact is those names hail from the heyday of American bigotry. No one claims bigotry is dead in this racial and cultural amalgam of a nation, but it sure has become a lot more subtle.

These reminders of America's past, however unpleasant, are a big part of a booming market of black memorabilia collecting.

The names above belong to painted tin windup toys patented from 1910 to 1921. They all have moving parts. Jazzbo Jim, for instance, dances while a second figure saws on a fiddle. Ham plunks on an upright piano as Sam does a jig.

At a April 27 auction by the Gordon Auction Co. at the Frederick Fairgrounds, Jazzbo Jim with fiddler brought $425, Alabama Coon Jigger $550, Ham and Sam $475 and Somstepa Coon Jigger $525. (A fuller description of these and other black items from that sale follows this article.)

That some blacks collect these grossly stereotypical items and display them in their homes may come as a surprise. But Jeanette Carson, a pioneer in collecting black memorabilia, explains her decision to do so this way:

"I was offended too when I first got involved," she says, but she soon realized, "They don't represent the way black people look. They represent the mentatlity of the people who produced them.

"I consider the negative items the black holocaust. You cannot sweep it under the rug."

Similarly, Ronald Rooks, who began collecting black material in 1949, says, "Nobody's going to be offended." For him stereotypical images represent "a time and space in history that still exists in the back of some [white] people's minds. It's not us; it's the way they were looking at us."

Mrs. Carson, of Hyattsville, has been publishing a magazine, Black Ethnic Collectibles, for four years, while under the name Ethnic Treasures Inc., she produces shows of black memorabilia and collectibles. She also founded the Black Memorabilia Collectors Association, with 900 members across the United States.

"The whole purpose of our movement is to have black-specific shows," she says. "That's negative and positive and historical items that fall into the rubric of black memorabilia.

"I get a lot of flak [for showing stereotypicals], but I don't let it bother me. People are offended because they lack the proper education." Her magazine and collectible shows, she hopes, provide some of the necessary education.

However, she will not show reproductions: "I don't condone the reproduction of stereotypical items. That I do not approve of. That I consider the perpetuation of negativity. You can't erase history [the historically bigoted items], but you can prevent the continuation of the negative part of American history."

Mr. Rooks began collecting at age 16, first books and historical information, then small graphics such as postcards and trade cards, and later paintings and prints. For years he had a shop on Howard Street. Now his retail trade is limited to Sundays at Black Angus in Adamstown, Pa.

His acceptance of the ugly depictions of bigotry toward blacks comes in direct proportion to the strength of his own self-image. As he explains: "If you pass me by and think me below you, that's your problem."

His friendship with auctioneer Richard Opfer in Timonium led to Mr. Opfer becoming one of the first auction houses to feature black collectibles 10 years ago.

"Ronald had a big collection and knew lots of people with lots of things to sell," Mr. Opfer says. "I was a friend of his and an auctioneer, so I said let's do it."

The response at the 1981 sale was positive from both white and black collectors alike. Any fears Mr. Opfer had of offense being taken from his sale of stereotypical items were unwarranted. Was there ever any complaining? "I never had it."

At the first sale, he says, he was worried over a photograph, "a very racial piece," so he withdrew it from the sale. Afterwords he showed it to some black collectors, who not only weren't offended but expressed interest in the piece.

Little was available in the early '80s in the way of price guidelines for black collectibles. According to Mr. Opfer, that led to some strong prices for mediocre items at his first sale.

He says, "Over a period of years, they [collectors] found out how numerous some pieces were." Consequently, prices for common items have risen little since his 1981 sale.

Not so for the best pieces. "The very rare and best condition always go up," Mr. Opfer says. "Everything is governed by supply and demand and condition."

That basic premise of auctioneering will be tested yet again Saturday at his Timomium auction house, when one woman's 16-year collection of black memorabilia goes on the block.

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