WHAT A THING to include in a collection of black memorabilia: The skinny, 40-inch-tall, metal figure takes the form of a tuxedo-clad black man holding an ash tray waist-high. Flanking the tray are smaller receptacles for cigarettes and matches.

Superficially, this so-called silent butler would seem an affront to black people, including Steven Lewis, who owns the piece. Instead, he considers the silent butler a treasure -- just another part of his memorabilia collection comprised of items that illustrate the upbeat as well as the negative ways blacks have been portrayed in America.

"This was a premium back in the '30s," says Lewis, standing beside the butler in his living room. "They gave these away when you took out a subscription to American Theater magazine in New York. The subscription was five or ten dollars, and this came along as a free giveaway."

A decade ago Lewis paid $300 for the piece, he says, and in 1988 he read of an identical one changing hands at auction for $1,300.

Okay, so the value has zoomed. But when Lewis considers what the piece baldly denotes about past racial stereotyping, doesn't he feel any pain?

"Slavery was painful," he says, "but does that mean we should not learn and understand what slavery was all about?"

Elaborating, Lewis reveals that derogatory artifacts such as the butler have prompted some blacks to disparage collectors like himself.

But their criticism misses the point, he argues. "Through black memorabilia we can learn about where one another's cultures were and to see the differences between blacks and whites. And then through these differences we can {better} understand each other."

Ed McIntosh, co-founder and president of the Black Memorabilia Collectors Association, says, "There was one time when the NAACP was totally against the collecting and preservation of {derogatory} items. I think the consciousness of blacks now is that these things need to be preserved, not as decorative items but as educational items that document history, {letting} us know of a past that was not always pleasant."

For people sympathetic to that view, be they black or white, Washington is an ideal place to live. Though there is only one substantial museum display here that incorporates a lot of black memorabilia -- the National Museum of American History's "Field to Factory" exhibit -- this area is home to scores of antique shops and several dealers in black memorabilia.

Washington also is home to the prime movers and chief spokesmen of the collecting establishment. They include Jeannette Carson, publisher of Black Ethnic Collectibles magazine; Malinda Saunders, who in 1984 jointly organized (with Carson) the country's first major black-memorabilia show; McIntosh; and Lewis, whose private collection is one of country's finest.

A rich sampling of Lewis's artifacts will be on display this month and next at the Alexandria Black History Resource Center. On Feb. 23, in conjunction with the exhibit, Lewis will conduct a workshop on collecting black memorabilia. The three-hour session will cover a variety of topics of interest to aspiring collectors: getting started, settling on a specialty, buying and caring for memorabilia and keeping up with the marketplace.

Actually, "the marketplace" is a misnomer, since black memorabilia is a medley of numerous marketplaces.

Practically every category known to collectors -- comic books, paintings, autographs, toys, political buttons, cereal boxes, dolls, records, magazines -- contains a segment focused on black creators and subjects. These segments have been stitched together in a patchwork quilt called black memorabilia, or perhaps, African-Americana.

In this universe of material, the derogatory items tend to attract more than their fair share of attention. But as any collector knows, there's no shortage of positive stuff to collect. Much of it is fine art, and much is miscellany.

For all its broadness, African-Americana collecting is a relatively young discipline. Before 1984, Jeannette Carson says, "the only time you could buy {black} collectibles in any large amount is when you went to an antique show and there just happened to be some there." Now two Washington firms, Ethnic Treasures and Unica Shows Unlimited, organize half a dozen shows a year in the Norfolk-Boston corridor.

Like concerts by black performers, African-Americana shows draw pan-ethnic throngs. "In fact, at one time there were more white collectors than black," says Carson. "It has turned around now, but there is still a large percentage of white collectors."

Also welcomed to the party are rookie collectors who can't afford blue-chip curios. Michael Sharp of Washington bought his first piece, a print by black illustrator Ernie Barnes called "The Sugar Shack," for $35 at Cohen's gallery on L Street NW. And Reginald Ware of Mitchellville launched his collection by purchasing an old Cream O' Wheat advertisement for $3 at an antique store in Bowie.

Ware and Sharp remain casual collectors, each with fewer than 60 pieces. Nevertheless, when asked for artifact-hunting advice, they reply in the self-assured tones of old pros.

Buy from a wide variety of sources, counsels Sharp, who haunts flea markets and estate sales as well as antique stores and memorabilia shows.

Ware emphasizes the importance of specializing. "You can't buy paper and spoons and cookie jars and majolica pieces," he says. "You have to decide what you're interested in and try to stick to one thing." By cultivating a specialty, a collector can quickly develop an ability to spot fake artifacts, which abound in most collectible areas.

Steven Lewis is one of those big collectors who can afford to disregard the specialization maxim. Showing off his stuff one recent afternoon, Lewis stands before a set of broad shelves packed tight with cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers, statues, toys, lamps, canisters, paintings, framed newspaper pages, dolls and other items.

"I basically collect because I enjoy it, because it's fun and it's educational," says Lewis, who works as a home care manager for Community Connection, a mental health care outfit. "Every time I get a new item, it sends me to the library. And we're right here in the middle of some of the greatest research facilities in the country -- the Library of Congress, the Archives and the Smithsonian. It takes time and effort to do a lot of this research, but it's well worth it."

Both Lewis's research stints and his emotional attachment to his curios become distinct as he comments on items he plucks, one by one, from the shelves.

"Majolica porcelain from the 1800s out of Europe -- that's the heart and soul of my collection," he says, holding up a combination ash tray and cigarette holder cast in the form of a young man leaning against a brick wall. "A very artistic, well-crafted piece. And the image is a very human-like image. There's no stereotyping whatsoever there."

Stereotyping -- the distortion of a subject's features and clothing -- was a common practice of fine and commercial artists well into the 1960s in America and elsewhere, Lewis says.

From a shelf he grabs an empty, ancient-looking pancake-mix box bearing the familiar Aunt Jemima logo. Noting the scarf-covered head and chubby cheeks of the pictured woman, Lewis sketches Aunt Jemima's evolution.

In 1890, the character was dreamed up by two partners who sold the first packaged pancake mix. The product was a nameless novelty until it was marketed under the Aunt Jemima name, says Lewis. In 1893, the partners hired one Nancy Green to impersonate Aunt Jemima at Chicago's Columbian Exposition. Green played the part until her death in 1923.

The company was bought by Quaker Oats in 1926, and between the early '30s and early '60s Quaker Oats revived the concept of hiring women to portray Aunt Jemima. The logo remained basically unchanged until the mid-'60s, when protests from the black community prompted Quaker Oats to modernize Aunt Jemima by slimming her face and changing her head rag to a folded scarf. Two years ago, the character's scarf was removed altogether and she was given earrings, a lace collar and a short-cropped, feathered-back hairdo with touches of silver.

Lewis is proud to have a box bearing the full-head-rag logo. "Collectors are now collecting the image with the small scarf," he says. "Ten years from now that image will be as collectible as this one."

He takes down a foot-high, tin can bearing the logo of Mammy's Favorite, a coffee and tea brand of the C. D. Kenny Co. The can's illustration depicts a black woman, clad in head rag and apron, carrying a tray with a coffee pot and cups.

"C. D. Kenny was based in Baltimore, but you see on this particular can that it says 'Buffalo,' where the company had an outlet," Lewis says. "The Buffalo cans are a little harder to get than the ones that say Baltimore."

The can is a "classic piece of black memorabilia," Lewis says, replacing the can and carefully taking down another classic -- a McCoy Mammy cookie jar that's "probably about 60 or 70 years old."

The bottom portion of the woman-shaped container is a billowy white dress; the lid depicts the woman from the waist up, with her green buttons and scarf, broad smile, plump cheeks and red head rag.

The jar says "Cookies," which makes it less coveted by collectors than earlier, ultra-rare jars by McCoy labeled "Dim Cookies."

"That was the type of lingo spoken in those days -- dim days," Lewis says. "If you find one of those, you'll have well over a thousand-dollar cookie jar."

On another shelf is a piece of positive African-Americana, a framed front page from The Washington Post of April 10, 1939. Prominently displayed there is a story about opera singer Marian Anderson performing for 75,000 black and white listeners before the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Constitution Hall.

Lewis estimates he has over 1,000 pieces in his collection, which includes scores of books, manuscripts and other paper items not displayed on his living room shelves.

None of it is for sale. "Eventually I hope to get it into a museum," Lewis says, "or start some kind of museum or something like that where people could come in and take a look at it."

Consider the Alexandria exhibit a sneak preview of the venture he has in mind.