FAMILY BUSINESS: The Treasure Inside


A 1920s golliwog perfume bottleLately I’d been thinking heavily on various connotations of the word pick as a verb and as a noun and, within those grammatical forms, in familiar phrases. Positive contexts include: draft pick, pick of the litter, pick-me-up. … You get the picture. Negative connotations include: pickup artist, pickpocket, pick on and picky. Picket can be neutral or not, and pondering its emotive shades reminds me of the Cha-Cha Slide: positive if one’s politics lean to the left, negative if they lean to the right.

Then, unaware of the button on my remote gliding through channels like a planchette on an Ouija board, I tuned into a show on the Discovery Channel titled “Auction Kings.” It was a séance of a worldly kind, for over the next hour I would learn that contemporary usage of the word picker elevates manual labor to the fascinating realm of collecting. Antiques and vintage-articles, that is. Not only did my triple-pierced ears prick up with each cha-ching! during the auction at program’s end, but also I discovered something mo’ betta: the treasure inside.

First, allow me to rewind. The prince among the “Auction Kings,” the twentysomething son of the owner of a consignment company and auction house — Gallery 63 in Atlanta — tries to convince his dad to incorporate picking into their family business. (For collectors, picking means finding items to resell in the second market through retail and/or auction outlets.) Apparently, he’s a long way from fully understanding the business, for after he explains to his pops that picking would enable their company to keep one hundred percent of the profits, pops in turn warns him that if an item doesn’t sell, there’s a one hundred percent loss. Later in the episode, however, the son learns to heed daddy’s advice when a document described on-line as “a slave warrant” (issued by a slaveowner for the return of, in this case, “[his] Negro slave child”) is determined to be the nineteenth-century version of a police report. Son’s jaw drops upon his visit to a local appraiser specializing in historical documents, who quotes fifty bucks rather than any price near the two hundred smackaroos he paid the shrewd, albeit unscrupulous, on-line seller.

Cautionary tale? Sure, but that’s not where I’m headed. Besides, it’s common sense not to spend lots of money on-line or by phone on antiques and vintage items because one has no way to see and handle them — as at an auction preview — let alone have appraisers in the various fields authenticate the items. I’m pointing out the slavery document because what the appraiser in “Auction Kings” tells sonny boy raised my dark eyebrows and sent my big behind shifting in my vintage Queen Anne chair: He says the slaveowner’s “deposition” (apparently not a police report, as described earlier in the episode) isn’t worth much because it falls under “historical curiosities.”

For centuries Black people have been — not were, for We still are — considered historical curiosities. So I eased up and leaned back in my creaky chair mulling over the word picker again. For some reason the phrase cotton picking mind popped into my antiques-picking one, and that’s when a Discovery Channel moment helped me discover the treasure inside of myself — buried treasure that you too can mine. So, tuck your plastic and/or billfold in your jacket or purse, pack your blacklight and get to picking, for you could be an estate sale or flea market away from bartering historical finds for cold hard cash.

Collecting U.S. slavery documents and artifacts and/or slave-made art, as well as slavery-era items that often are advertised on-line and in print as “Black Americana” or “Black memorabilia” shouldn’t be perceived as a field ripe for picking only by Civil War enthusiasts. We as Black people of the African Diaspora — and I am referring to those of Us who identify as Black not out of convenience or wigganess but in total consciousness and love — would do well to school Ourselves and each other on picking as it relates to converting articles into wealth. You talk about reparations? Maybe the closest We can come to that is via the world of collecting.

Once We were forced onto the shores of Brazil (more Blacks there than in the United States), the Caribbean, Central America and the American colonies — having been triangularly traded for sugarcane, rum, etc. — We continued to be whipped and chained into submission. (Quentin, I’m giving you the finger. These days when I mention “Django,” my listener thinks I’m referring to your “western,” when I’m waxing jazzical about Reinhardt. Don’t even get me started on when I mention “Benson.”) During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade Europe grew materially richer; Africans’ various skills were exploited. For example, those of us from agricultural areas were forced to grow, among many staples, rice. This is why in the supermarket aisle I, a person of Gullah ancestry, frown at the face of Uncle Ben and gag at the skyward prices of long-grain rice. What’s wilder is that We Africans picked cotton, tobacco — all kinds of crops — for no pay! In kitchens from plantation to plantation, We fixed meals for white folks while Our babies cried in wooden shacks out yonder, waiting for Us to prepare them some yummy scraps of this and that. Those leftovers are now called soul food — and I’m not referring to gourmet fare such as braised chitterlings with shallots in garlic butter, or sautéed catfish à l’aïoli.

[Don’t preach to this sista ’bout her toutin’ lard when France ingeniously has raised foie gras to cult status for European and American snobs. (As for Asia, Japan doesn’t get off easily, either: auctioning off gargantuan tunas for tens of thousands of dollars in order to fashion them into sushi art.) Raising geese organically and force-feeding them only to slaughter them for their fat livers? Succulent, n’est-ce pas? Tasty — really?]

If you’ve reached this paragraph, you’re probably angry as hell — and not about the fetishistic murder of geese. Goose! I mean good! Now, if you really want to be down, turn that energy into action. No, I don’t mean only picketing, for We’ll be battling descendants of white slaveowners forever. In my family, they won’t even come to the picnic table — for a real family reunion. And that brings me back to discussing those Black Americana items. …

By no means am I suggesting that We Black folks should collect only Black Americana. We are connected by recent historical experience but also to other human experience and to Planet Earth. In other words, there are numerous things that We may wish to collect: from stamps, historic letters and books; paintings, photographs and posters; to baseball cards, bobble heads and comic books; dolls, watches and clocks. Many of these material objects vibrate with echoes of human stories and can cast spells on the picker with deep pockets. The trick is really a social art, that of haggling — hey, they practiced it at the slave markets all-those-not-that-many-years-ago (the reason I flinch, as if scourged, when I see a brotha smiling on the block in a bachelor auction. What price booty? NOT!)

As at open-air markets throughout the world, even those of Us who are cash-poor can find objects to collect or flip (like comic genius Wilson in his Geraldine wig) at estate sales, flea markets, yard sales, garage sales, stoop sales, street fairs, bazaars at numerous types of venues, and, yes, on-line. However, by highlighting collecting Black Americana — from mammy toaster covers and Aunt Jemima clocks to runaway-slave posters and slaves’ dog tags and shackles — I’m drawing your attention to the irony of Us collecting items that, for the most part, were created to dehumanize Us.

There’s a plethora of categories of Black memorabilia intended to be derisive in addition to demoralizing. Screw the old standby, the coffee table book (though The Big Penis Book always catches a visitor’s eye in my home — why I added that rider to my renter’s insurance policy). What better conversation pieces than the following symbols of Black Americana: boxes of toothpaste displaying sambo images (to prove to non-Blacks that they too could brush to the rhythm of a dang-good shoeshine until their choppers gleamed, though without that “darkie” pop!); grinning or passive-eyed mammy figurines (both attitudinal types complete with kerchief, apron and flour-sack tits); a topsy-turvy doll (because even guests would agree as the cocktails multiply that hiding under every Black chick’s skirt is a white chick); and glossy-black, red-tire-lipped lawn jockeys for Black homeowners (to start the conversation before guests ring the doorbell). C’mon now, isn’t it time that We had the last laugh?

Hell yeah, I’m talking about Us displaying these offensive items in Our curio-cabinets, on shelves and whatnot (not hidden in trunks and closets), so that We never forget and so that we can remind visitors to Our homes, wherever We reside: rural towns, suburbs and inner cities — the latter from Compton, Chicago’s South Side, Brownsville, North Philly and Newark to the favelas of Brazil, Haiti and South Africa. In whose hands better to land than Ours, but each of Us needs to cherish the treasure inside — our love and respect for, and gratitude to, Our long-suffering African ancestors and, by extension, the pride in Ourselves and the unconscious but magnetic yearning for our Mother-Land?

As for the “family business” all-capped in the title of this essay, instead of me and you and Us sitting around watching others, including the descendants of U.S. slaveowners, become wealthy or wealthier on wonderful TV programs such as “Antiques Roadshow,” “Market Warriors,” “Pawn Stars,” “American Digger” (an entire episode of which — “Unearthing Controversy” [2012: Season 1, Episode 9] — focused on slavery artifacts excavated from a young South Carolinian couple’s backyard on the site of a former cotton plantation), “Auction Hunters” and “Auction Kings” — on which they often flaunt family heirlooms such as Confederate flags and rifles and sterling silver platters that Our foremothers and forefathers shined with as much perspiration as polish — let Us create family businesses with each of Our extended families. To cultivate the new family businesses, We could pool the monies earned after picking and reselling and/or auctioning.

From trust funds to consignment companies to (egad!) Black-owned auction houses (yeah, “egad” — just because I’m Black doesn’t mean I can’t collect vintage Archie comics), a larger-concept Family Business is one in which stashes of cash are invested into a vehicle that can make literal reparations in the U.S. South possible. Hmmm … Mi-humpback humpback-i-humpback humpback-i-humpback humpback-i sounds like the first state for picking. Or maybe South Carolina; in the aforementioned “American Digger” episode, there was another white family whose backyard was a graveyard of slavery artifacts, but the matriarch refused to let the pickers excavate out yonder. She didn’t hold back on ignorance, recommending that history be left alone. Hmmm, I wonder how much her family racked up at the pawn shop in the days, weeks and months after that taping. Buried secrets, my ass. Your, my, Our African surnames of the distant past — they’re buried secrets … to Our identities!

Unlike the tight-lipped woman of the house in S.C., not all of Us have inherited an ancestor’s pot to cook with or piss in — as for the latter, porcelain potties (with or without an antique wooden chair that has retained its awesome patina) — because so few of Us have documented proof that We are legitimate descendants of Europeans. Here, I’m referring to specificity, not the results of genetics testing showing European admixture. The day has not yet arrived when, at least in the U.S., land of the hushed-about “one-drop rule” or “one-drop theory,” possibly up to twenty-five percent of the white population — a.k.a. legitimate descendants of Europeans — go around bragging about their Sub-Saharan African admixture.

For those whites in the U.S. who are really Blacks hiding in plain sight but are ready to come out bolder than Jesse Collins, I say: Tain’t no Mardi Gras; unmask yourselves and embrace your Blackness! And while you’re at it, share some of those family heirlooms with Us, your bloodbrothas and -sistas. But alas, the truth in the tragic romance of Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby,” a key short story in American literature, unfortunately (for those of Us out in the open as Black and bearing the scars from both the hata camp and, unconsciously, the wigga camp) will remain fiction. Why? America will not allow one of its darkest truths — that millions of white people continue to “pass” as white through the generations — to emerge in the light of day.

Enough with this pseudosociological dissertation. Let’s start picking each other’s brains. In the names of Our ancestors — who laid down blueprints for Our future in the midst of Their private and public pain but also Their private and public triumphs — let’s really make it rain!

© 2013 Chantale Rêve
All Rights Reserved

Photo Caption:  Example of a golliwog perfume bottle from the 1920s

Photo Source:  Wikipedia


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