May 2017

American Inheritance: Exploring African American History and the Performance of Race through Material Culture

After the Civil War, African American men gained the right to vote and with the support of African American women, elected thousands of black men to public office in local, state and federal positions across the South.

For more, see Activism Editor Tom Foley’s companion interview with David Hunt on storytelling as a means of countering racist and classist mythologies.

by Kamilah Stinnett

2013.168.1
Pinback button featuring a campaign portrait of Senator William B. Nash. Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of the family of William Beverley Nash.

After the Civil War, African American men gained the right to vote and with the support of African American women, elected thousands of black men to public office in local, state and federal positions across the South. William B. Nash, pictured to the right, was elected and served as a state senator in South Carolina from 1868 to 1877.[1] He was one of millions of African Americans transitioning from a life of enslavement to one of freedom. During and after slavery, African American men and women sought to make a life for themselves and their children. They resisted crushing oppression, created new languages and genres of music, made scientific discoveries and inventions and loved and cared for one another. All of these endeavors produced an invaluable collection of material culture.

Material culture is the study of the ideas, values, attitudes and assumptions of a community or group of people through artifacts.[2] Artifacts are the physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture. The items in your home communicate your socioeconomic status, your interests, beliefs and your habits. The objects you pass down to future generations speak to your values. Material culture makes history more dynamic, more accurate and can be a source of family history and genealogy. It is just as revealing as written word and in many ways, can elevate the truth of lived experiences.

Bringing African American History to Life

Artifacts become a vital resource to interpret the history of a group of people who were largely prohibited from leaving a written record of their lives. They are useful not only in revealing the facts of history but also illuminating the truth of certain realities. The concept of slavery and freedom provides excellent examples.

Everything we are taught about African Americans suggests that there is no history worth remembering, learning or preserving. And we are taught this in part by the material culture that has been and continues to be created about African Americans. The majority of non-black material culture created about African Americans perpetuates anti-black stereotypes and reinforces white supremacy.

Before the Civil War, some enslaved African Americans were freed by their enslavers. Free people of color were required to carry certificates of freedom on their person at all times to prove their status as free people. They were required to show their certificates, known colloquially as papers, upon questioning or interrogation by a white person. Some states, like the Commonwealth of Virginia, required free people of color to register every three years.[3] Freedom was precarious. It depended largely on the willingness of a white person to accept the certificates as legitimate. And, as evidenced by Solomon Northup’s 12 Years A Slave, it was not uncommon for free people of color to be sold into slavery, even if they had never been enslaved.

image 2_trammell_tin
Freedom papers and handmade tin carrying box belonging to Joseph Trammell. Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of Elaine E. Thompson, in memory of Joseph Trammell, on behalf of his descendants.

Joseph Trammell’s certificate of freedom was issued in 1852 and describes his age and physical appearance so he could be identified should the need arise in the future. He was 21 years old at the time and had a small scar on his forehead and a larger one on his left wrist; he was 5’7” tall and dark skinned. The tin, however, tells us much more about him. Trammell made the tin to protect his freedom. His papers were all that stood between his enslavement and freedom. Arbitrary though freedom might have been, he made the tin anyway. This artifact also tells us something about the Loudoun County Court Clerk that wrote the document. Charles G. Eskridge apparently believed he had the right to administer freedom to another human being. The tin was well made and served its purpose. Trammell’s great-great-great-granddaughter donated it, with the certificate still folded inside, to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2014. His descendants understood the importance of the object and handed it down as an heirloom over the last 165 years. Though perhaps not as awe-inspiring as freedom papers, articles of clothing can be just as impactful.

Printed floral skirt worn by Lucy Lee Shirley as a child
Printed floral skirt worn by Lucy Lee Shirley as a child. Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of the Black Fashion Museum, founded by Louis K. Alexander-Lane.

This skirt dates back to 1860 and has a small floral pattern and blue hem. The design suggests whoever made the skirt took great care in doing so. It is unassuming, but to see it in person is striking. It is disturbingly tiny. Lucy Shirley could not have been any more than six years old when she wore that skirt as an enslaved child in Loudoun County, Virginia. We know African American children were not spared the injustice of enslavement but the skirt hammers the point home. The skirt was originally part of the collection of the Black Fashion Museum in Washington, D.C. Founder Louis K. Alexander-Lane collected this skirt and other garments to document African American contributions to fashion and to honor dressmakers. An index card accompanied the skirt that had Lucy’s name, life dates and locations on it. With this information, I was able to trace Lucy to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where she appeared in numerous census and local records. She started a family, owned several businesses and was an active member of her community. Her descendants knew of Lucy and the skirt but did not know their ancestor’s story.[4] A few descendants live in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area and are able to see their family’s history on display at the nation’s largest museum dedicated to celebrating and preserving African American history and culture.

Performing Race

The three artifacts mentioned above are just a brief glimpse into one area of African American material culture. African American museums across the country are dedicated to preserving and interpreting this rich inheritance. However, despite the daily consumption of African American culture, American society does not associate blackness with cultural heritage. In fact, when speaking about my work with African American history and artifacts the question I’m often asked is “what artifacts?” People have a hard time grasping the idea that centuries of music, language, fashion and academic contributions literally materialize into physical objects.

Today’s media, popular culture and history books are full of harmful, stereotypical depictions of black people but society largely does not frame this imagery as anti-black or white supremacist. We think of racism and white supremacy in terms of extreme actors and actions.

Why is that? To be fair, one reason is that people outside of the humanities generally don’t think much about artifacts and when they do, they’re associated with dinosaurs (Jurassic Park anyone?). In earnest, everything we are taught about African Americans suggests that there is no history worth remembering, learning or preserving. And we are taught this in part by the material culture that has been and continues to be created about African Americans. The majority of non-black material culture created about African Americans perpetuates anti-black stereotypes and reinforces white supremacy.

63223CAC7E2E2_4002.tif
“Mammy and Chef” salt and pepper shakers. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of the Collection of James M. Caselli and Jonathan Mark Scharer.

Minstrel salt and pepper shakers like the ones pictured above were a common household item for decades. For a long time, mundane items like toys, coin banks, door stops, cookie jars and clocks depicted African Americans as laughable, lazy, ugly and unintelligent. Companies used racist stereotypes to market and brand their products; Aunt Jemima was not a real person but a 19th century minstrel character—a white invention.[5] Few institutions, like the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, take the time to unpack anti-black imagery. It is, perhaps, difficult to unpack this imagery when it’s still being used widely. Today’s media, popular culture and history books are full of harmful, stereotypical depictions of black people but society largely does not frame this imagery as anti-black or white supremacist. We think of racism and white supremacy in terms of extreme actors and actions. The KKK was responsible for lynching, not my family; the Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust, not the neighbors. Material culture calls that narrow understanding into question quite plainly.

Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, and Crème of Wheat still use anti-black caricatures; Pine-Sol and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen use black women to sell their cleaning agents and fried chicken; white college students host black-people themed parties complete with blackface, watermelon slices, hapless impersonations and hip hop. If William’s campaign button, Joseph’s tin and Lucy’s skirt speak to the spirit of the communities in which they emerged, what do these artifacts say about their creators?

kstinnett headshotKamilah Stinnett is a museum consultant currently working at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She holds a M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University and a B.A. in History from Michigan State University. She can be contacted here.

Notes

[1] Moore, John Hammond. Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740-1990. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1993),186

[2] Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method.” Winterthur Porfolio 17, no. 1 (April 1982): 1-19. Accessed April 29, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180761?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

[3] Guild, June Purcell. Black Laws of Virginia; a summary of the legislative acts of Virginia concerning Negroes from earliest times to the present. (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson), 95 https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015058018006

[4] Chang, Elizabeth. “For a while she was a name and a status—enslaved. Now we know more,” The Washington Post Magazine, September 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/for-a-while-she-was-a-name-and-a-status-enslaved-now-we-know-more/2016/09/14/771a6782-4d2c-11e6-a422-83ab49ed5e6a_story.html?utm_term=.92da8b49b9b7

[5] “Varieties! Varieties!” Daily National Republican, August 11, 1864. Accessed May 8, 2017. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053570/1864-08-11/ed-1/seq-3/

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2 comments on “American Inheritance: Exploring African American History and the Performance of Race through Material Culture

  1. Pingback: The Power of Storytelling: An Interview with Social Change Leader David Hunt – The Activist History Review

  2. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany – May 21, 2017 | The Vintage Traveler

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