LILLIAN ANTHONY-WELCH'S home on 13th Street NW is a veritable museum of bizarre racist memorabilia. Upstairs are rooms of ludicrous pickaninnies, smiling Rastuses and ample Aunt Jemimas. There are products like Negro Head Oysters, banks an cookie-jar faces with exaggerated ink-black skins and giant red lips and labels with blacks singing the praises for Inky Black ink remover.
You'd think they would be the last thing Anthony-Welch would want to return to each day when she's finished her scholarly work at George Mason University. But she sees them as an important cultural link to the present.
Anthony-Welch began her collection in 1961 when she was working on a doctorate on how black women teach cultural values.
"I asked myself why black women hadn't been characterized as viable transmitters [of the culture] despite their strong nurturing roles," she said. "So I began to look at the images and I went into antique shops. One of the reasons why she hasn't is that she's traditionally depicted as a mammy, a servant -- big and grotesque. As I began to collect these images. I began to suspect that she was depicted that way because [people didn't want to show] she was such an outstanding human being -- insightful, intuitive, strong -- bigger than life."
Anthony-Welch has used her collection of about 2,000 items as an educational vehicle, lecturing to various groups around the country. Last month she joined another black collector, Marguerite Ross Barnett, in an exhibit for a scholarship benefit at the Washington Ethical Society. Both women are writing books on the images of black people in American popular culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, as seen through their collections.
Black Americans have been gathering these artifacts more and more in recent years, joining whites who have been doing it for a long time.
"Unless you see the proliferation of these images," Anthony-Welch said "you'd never fully understand the impact of racism.
As she led me from sterling silver baby spoons and baby rattles depicting lazy blacks to "darkie" andirons to doz ens of items showing blacks attending ablutions, she said, "If it was precious to us, it was made fun of -- church, family life, trying to improve ourselves. I discovered that these images are icons, they make an indelible impression."
At Jeff and Marshall Logan's antique shop in Northwest Washington -- where the collection of kitsch includes Ku Klux Klan salt and pepper shakers -- its easier to find artifacts that distort the image of blacks than it is to find the figurines of real heroes like Frederick Douglass and Toussaint L'ouverture.
Though the Logans have been collectors since 1964, they have only recently been willing to exhibit more of their collection and talk about it because they had felt that may of their customers might be offended or pained.But so far there have been no complaints.
"In case blacks think they've made it, this tells them how they are regarded," said Marshall Logan. "If you don't destory it, you know what other people think of you. Is it an advantage not to show the slave ships where blacks were packed like sardines? The real thing is to bring it forward, bring it forward."
Looking at all these pieces of memorabilia, it struck me why the racial divide is so wide in America. If a white child grew up in a place like Idaho or South Dakota and did't know any blacks first-hand, it was no wonder he saw them as the sub-human images found on toys and other household items.
But the items of the past are not the disturbing thing.It's that the stereotyping goes on -- and beyond the new Aaunt Jemima flyswatters Marguerite Barnett found in Louisiana recently. Turn on the television and find Sammy Davis Jr. doing his Kingfish-like rountine and Gary coleman a pint-sized version of it ("what you talkin' 'bout girl?") rolling his eyes. The black women, who are hefty if not obese, conjure up visions of Mammy, while the black men who capture the ratings are rarely more than palm-slapping basketballiers who can't take care of themselves. They are the blacks that the children of Idaho and South Dakota now know -- and the black images projected to young black children.
Perhaps someday the tapes of the TV shows will take their place where they belong -- on the shelf next to the cookie jars and banks. There they can remind us of where we've been and, hopefully, where we won't return.