Black Memorabilia Exhibit Reflects Changing Times and Attitudes

Ventriloquist dolls. A. Hinkle photo.
Ventriloquist dolls. A. Hinkle photo.

By Annette Hinkle

Last month, Mattel announced a new line of Barbie dolls designed to reflect the various shapes and color of real women. Many people say it’s about time and among the new Barbie options are three figures — petite, curvy or tall — seven different skin tones, 22 eye colors and 14 face shapes.

This is certainly a far cry from what little girls had to choose from just a couple generations ago, particularly African American girls.

“My sister is two years older and she didn’t have any black dolls,” notes Sag Harbor’s Michael Butler. “When we were growing up there weren’t any.”

But times have changed and so has the way African Americans are depicted in figures and toys. The evolution of those changes will be on full display in “Black Memorabilia: Images and Icons” an exhibit featuring collectibles and dolls at the Eastville Community Historical Society.

The exhibit, which coincides with Black History Month, opens February 20 and the items on view are from the private collections of Michael Butler and his brother, Dr. Martin Butler. The Butler brothers grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when the only African American faces offered in the media on a regular basis were those of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima.

But as a graduate student in Springfield, Massachusetts, Dr. Butler happened upon an African American-owned antique store where he came across a wide array of Black memorabilia. It was a point of interest for him and Dr. Butler began collecting these objects, feeling that by purchasing them he was somehow buying back Black culture.

Soon, Michael Butler started collecting as well and the wide array of items on view in the Eastville exhibit span more than a century of memorabilia amassed by the brothers. The collection includes older figurines and ephemera depicting the stereotypical Tom and Mammy caricatures, but also here are toys specifically for children such as marionettes, homemade Black dolls and more recent doll collectibles which are based on popular culture.

While many of the earlier objects were (and in some cases still are) considered derogatory and offensive and often ignored by African Americans, Mr. Butler notes that by the 1970s, attitudes about Black memorabilia began to change among African American collectors.

“People became aware that although the images were negative, it was part of our history and our heritage and we have to own it,” says Mr. Butler. “It was derogatory and there was so much pain, but for the younger generation, I think many people were able to appreciate these things as objects of art.”

A Blackamoor wall hanging. A. Hinkle photo.
A Blackamoor wall hanging. A. Hinkle photo.

Today, he notes, Black memorabilia is considered very collectible among African Americans, including celebrities like director Spike Lee.

“That has helped to diffuse it — but there are still those who want nothing to do with it,” admits Mr. Butler.

While one might assume that African American imagery is a distinctly homegrown trend, in fact, as far back as the 1500s decorative arts featuring characters of African heritage were popular in Europe. Known as Blackamoor, these earlier figures were typically depicted wearing exotic North African costumes and jewelry. Though European in origin, Blackamoor had a tradition in mid-20th century American decorative arts as well. Mr. Butler recalls that his aunt had several pieces in her home and among the Blackamoor on view in this show is a hanging wall figure, a bottle opener and a table lamp featuring a figure dressed in a vibrant green costume. Mr. Butler adds that in 2012, Dolce & Gabbana was heavily criticized for featuring Blackamoor earrings on its models in a runway show.

Another object on view that has raised eyebrows is Lucifer, an African American marionette by the Effanbee Company that dates to the late 1930s. Mr. Butler found the marionette in its original box at a yard sale in Sag Harbor in the mid-90s.

“I had to have it. It was so unique and I had never seen anything like it before,” says Mr. Butler who soon learned that Lucifer was part of a cast of marionettes created by puppeteer Virginia Curtis Austin for the Clippo the Clown’s “Clippo Club.” Lucifer (the only Black puppet in the line up) came with tickets, badges and instructions so children could create their own doorway puppet theater at home.

Mr. Butler notes that early versions of Lucifer, including the one he owns, have bare feet which the NAACP found derogatory and stereotypical. Sensitive to the concerns, the Effanbee Company ensured that in subsequent versions of the puppet, Lucifer was wearing shoes.

1930s Lucifer marionette by the Effanbee company. A. Hinkle photo.
1930s Lucifer marionette by the Effanbee company. A. Hinkle photo.

Increased awareness is a strong harbinger of change in the breaking down of stereotypes and perhaps one of the most notable trends in the depiction of African Americans came in the 1970s and the marketing of Black dolls based not on stereotype, but on pop culture icons and performers who had found success on television or the stage.

Mr. Butler notes it all began with Julia, a groundbreaking television show which premiered in 1968 and starred Diahann Carroll as an African American nurse and a widowed single mother. It was the first non-stereotypical role for a black actress and other shows followed, including a variety show hosted by comedian Flip Wilson. On view in the exhibit are two cloth dolls from the era, one depicting Mr. Wilson and a second based on his popular on screen alter-ego, Geraldine. Also represented are dolls based on celebrities and sports figures from more recent decades including Michael Jackson, James Brown, Dennis Rodman and Serena and Venus Williams.

“I think the ‘50s was the very end for a lot of those negative stereotypes,” says Mr. Butler. “Once the Civil Rights era kicked into high gear and people became more sensitive, they protested against that portrayal of Blacks.”

In this way, times have certainly changed for the better. Now with Barbie breaking all sorts of barriers, there’s no reason why every child can’t have a doll that looks just like him or her — in the most positive of ways.

“Black Memorabilia: Images and Icons” opens with a reception on Saturday, February 20, 2016 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Eastville Community Historical Society, 139 Hampton Street, Sag Harbor. The show will remain on view throughout much of 2016. Appointments to view the collection may be made by calling (631) 725-4611.