Putting historic images in their rightful place

November 26, 1997|By Elmer P. Martin

RECENTLY, Christie's, the famed New York auction house, became the target of a decades-old struggle of African Americans: The fight for black cultural survival.

After a public outcry, Christie's withdrew from sale several 19th-century slavery documents slated to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Instead, Christie's will donate the items to museums.

Equating Christie's aborted sale with cultural exploitation is a continuation of a cultural war that gained momentum among black people after Emancipation.

At the turn of the century, the battles on the cultural front took many forms as black people were bombarded with negative images of themselves everywhere. In minstrel shows, whites blackened their faces and performed as imitative black folks. Circus sideshows, called ''nig shows,'' depicted black people as ''missing links,'' America's consummate freaks. Movies like ''The Birth of a Nation'' portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and black men as rapists of white women. Many advertisements depicted big-eyed, jet-black ''darkies'' eating watermelon with wondrous delight.

Early in this century, black people from all walks of life joined in the struggle for black cultural liberation just as they would do later during the better-known civil rights movement of the 1960s.

'Little Black Sambo'

Black educators waged war on children's literature featuring such characters as ''Little Black Sambo'' downing piles of pancakes, ''the Ugly Ducking'' decrying its blackness and the popular ''Ten Little Nigger Boys'' fated to be killed one by one.

Black scholars combatted the scientific racism of the time, which claimed to have developed irrefutable, scientific proof of black genetic inferiority.

Many black intellectuals complained loudly about the hypocrisy Europeans displayed when they characterized Africans as inferior and degenerate, while stripping Africa of invaluable artwork and artifacts to enrich their own civilization.

Those black people who kept an eye on Europe were outraged over that continent's practice of taking Africans from their homelands to be exhibited as freaks and alleged proof of white supremacy.

As recently as a year ago, South African government representatives appealed to the French government to return the remains of Saartjie Baartman, a woman who was billed as the Hottentot Venus and paraded naked around 19th-century Europe.

Baartman created a national sensation in France that was on a par with that created by the famed black dancer, Josephine Baker, in this century. But throngs paid not to see Baartman dance, but rather to ogle her huge protruding buttocks.

They could pay more for the opportunity to touch her -- to see firsthand that she was not padded. Baartman was a member of the Khoi-Khoi people, known as Hottentots by Dutch settlers in South Africa. (The Khoi-Khoi tended to store fat in their buttocks, not stomachs and thighs.)

After Baartman died in 1815, Europeans remained riveted to her anatomy. Her skeleton and body parts, including her genitals, were preserved and put on display in the French Museum of Mankind until 1986, when they were placed in storage.

The Christie's affair must be seen in the context of black people's efforts to gain control over how they were and are depicted and represented in both European and American popular culture.

Earlier efforts to gain control over their own cultural products centered on getting world, state and local expositions to highlight black achievements. For example, Maryland's Frederick Douglass vociferously protested black exclusion from the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago; but the question white exposition officials constantly asked was: ''What achievements?''

The next step black people made was to reform white museums. The goal was not only to get these museums to stop advancing stereotypes in exhibits, but also to get them to grant full access to black museum-goers -- without Jim Crow accommodations.

The black museum movement grew out of black people's frustrations with the practices of white museums. But this movement developed late, during the turbulent 1960s, when authentic black artifacts were scarce (often hidden in the basements of museums like the Smithsonian).

Even when black cultural products and artifacts are up for auction at places like Christie's, black museums are generally too financially strapped to outbid the larger white museums.

Christie's should be commended for responding in a positive manner last week to the voices of black protest. Hopefully, Christie's pledge to donate the slavery-related items to museums will set an example for others to follow.

It is a small step but an important one since the cultural war, like the black struggle for first-class American citizenship, is continuous and protracted.

Elmer P. Martin, Ph.D., is a sociology professor at Morgan State University and co-founder, with his wife, Joanne Martin, of the Great Blacks In Wax Museum.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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