Date of Award
Open Access Dissertation
School of Arts and Humanities
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
© 2022 Conrad M Pruitt, Jr.
Black, Collectibles, Melancholia, Memorabilia, Racial
African American Studies | English Language and Literature
Over the last thirty years, an industry in black racist memorabilia has resurged. Bolstered by online commerce, social media trade, and a robust reproduction market, racist collectibles continue to circulate despite their functional obsolescence or presumed incongruity with current views of race. Many of these objects originated in the late nineteenth century, where the emergence of black citizenship was seen as a threat to a racial caste structure that ensured white supremacy. Following the impetus for supremacy that defined the Jim Crow era, the collectibles sought to crystallize conceptions of inherent black inferiority. The presumption that these originary conditions and ideologies differ from those of the present day legitimizes the (re)circulation of the ephemera, allowing enthusiasts to equate their interest in racist memorabilia to an apolitical “preservation of history.” This dissertation, however, contests the notion that the mammy jars, jolly banks, and other racist kitsch are mere defunct signifiers of past bigotry. This study asserts that black memorabilia, and the multitude of engagements with the objects, serve as vectors for discourses on race. Furthermore, the treatment, trade and production of racist collectibles follow a similar function of reinforcing beliefs in white racial hegemony. “Jemimas, Jockeys, and Jolly Banks: The Racial Discourse of Black Collectibles” explores the multiple aspects and manifestations of black collectibles—their materiality and etymology, their appearances in literary and filmic texts, their description in price guides, and their reclamation and appropriation by black artists—to uncover a larger dialogue on the fraught processes of racial formation and distinction. This dissertation engages multiple theoretical lenses to analyze the significance of black collectibles to past and present discourses on race. My project builds on the modest volume of scholarship on black collectibles, which is characterized by a focus on the historical contexts of the objects and tracing how the stereotypical imagery became/beget tropes that refract present conceptions of black subjectivity. Using the historical methodology from these extant studies, my dissertation expands this line of inquiry by focusing on the purpose of stereotypes rather than their origins. For instance, the Mammy trope has many iterations as a kitchenware motif, a marketing trademark, a stock character, and as a construct that romanticizes Antebellum and post-Emancipation racial relations. With its ubiquity seeking to naturalize its fictiveness, the mammy image perpetuates notions of harmonious race relations that obscure a history of exploitation. From this perspective, the objects facilitate ways of critiquing (or evading) the realities of socioracial conditions—conditions produced by a process of racialization that conflates racial distinction with hegemonic dominance. These objects symbolize the hegemonic dominance that is both present (for these objects still exist), and not present (no longer socially acceptable), and simultaneously allows outrage, disavowal, and ownership. I apply Anne Anlin Cheng’s and David Eng’s theory of racial melancholia as a framework to investigate the purposes behind these repressing revisions, and inspect how they buttress white hegemonic control. Moreover, the objects reveal the problematics of dialectic racialization. For the dominant white subject, the collectibles represent the paradox of enforced racial caste: while the collectibles reify a fixed black inferiority/white superiority, their materiality is a concrete reminder of the artificiality of the methods used to produce it. The melancholic loss experienced by the white subject is the recognition of the fictiveness of supremacy that the collectible both assuages and exacerbates. For the black subject, the objects signify the permanent loss of a fully realized, individuated personhood. The collectibles and the misconceptions they embody transfix blacks in a permanent dialectic; for the raced African American, declaring subjectivity is a process of perpetual negation. On one level, the disavowals involve eschewing intra-racial differences to create what Stuart Hall calls an essential “cultural identity.” Creating an essential blackness, however, paradoxically replicates the same totalizing effect that blacks are contending, and places them in what I see as a double-bind of black racial subjectivity. This dissertation examines the complexities of establishing racial individuation within a dialectic structure. To introduce these interpretative possibilities, the opening chapters cover literary manifestations of memorabilia. The collectibles frame authorial meditations on racial subjectivity that elucidate the multivalence of the collectibles. After introducing those concepts, my dissertation studies various material manifestations of the collectibles and their originary stereotypes. The concepts introduced through their literary manifestations illuminate additional significances to the real-life encounters covered in the final chapters. Due to this capacity to signify multivalent and contradictory positions on race, my dissertation posits that black ephemera represent palimpsests of racial discourse.
Pruitt, Conrad. (2022). Jemimas, Jockeys, and Jolly Banks: The Racial Discourse of Black Collectibles. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 468. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/468.