Something Old, Something Borrowed, Something White: Antique Malls as Centers of White Nostalgia and Racism

A junk shop in Elizabethton

In the 1955 manifesto, Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire argues that a “civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a sick civilization.”[1] In 2019, however, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has been at the front and center of recent headlines as a photo emerged from his college days at Eastern Virginia Medical School. The medical students’ costumes—one in “black face” and the other wearing the infamous white-hooded KKK regalia—were likely seen as a fun gesture to them, but they also blatantly celebrated notions of white supremacy and superiority over marginalized peoples.

Since the photo’s release, those living in Virginia have demanded that Northam step down as Democratic leader of the state. In a press conference on February 2, Northam rejected the fact that he was in the photograph, but admitted that he, at one time, “darkened his skin for a Michael Jackson costume.”[2] As this controversy continues to flood Twitter timelines and offer larger newspapers the opportunity to publish op-eds, larger theoretical implications arise over the actions and ideas of white Americans using the imagery of marginalized peoples for their own novelty.

The memory of America’s racial past continues to thrive in the twenty-first century. We have seen this through physical attacks at places like Charlottesville, Virginia or Charleston, South Carolina, from people like Donald J. Trump or Dinesh D’Souza, or through things like Confederate battle flags or racist memorabilia at antique malls. All of these things show that white America is not letting go of its racist past.

In August 2018, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial that discussed antique malls as a valued American cultural institution. These shopping centers stand as “repositories for our youth,” says the journalists, and that they should be considered a “Museum of Ordinary Folks.” Are antique malls arsenals of American material culture? Or, do they uplift imagery that brings together shoppers with the problematic “never forget” and “the good old days” attitudes? The obsequious attitude towards the “ordinary folk” and the romanticizing highlights of their pastoral and folksy antique malls by the Tribune journalists shed an innocent light on that group. However, in reality, the “ordinary folk” are the ones continually bolstering ideas of white nostalgia and supremacy through sale and display of racialized objects.

While traveling from Southwest Virginia to Middle Georgia over the holidays, I thought about this line. I, too, enjoy visiting antique malls while traveling. These shops give me a sense of a specific community through the sale of trinkets and historical memorabilia. However, while visiting antique malls in Christiansburg, Virginia and Byron, Georgia, I could not get the “Museum of Ordinary Folks” out of my mind.

Among the mounds of normal antique mall items—you know, the old clothing, fancy furniture, and large postcard collections—certain items stood out. Small items depicting African Americans in a “comical,” stereotyped fashion, sitting, waiting for a buyer, perhaps someone reminiscing about the Jim Crow era. In other booths, Native American costumes, most likely from a white child’s youth, which reflect cultural appropriation and the loss of Native American sovereignty.

golliwog

As a historian, I understand how problematic these items are. To the “ordinary folk” mentioned in the Tribune, how can they know the issues behind the imagery, the parody, and the problems behind white owners capitalizing on the sale to those unaware of the history? Maybe they do. Most certainly, people understand the history behind items like the African American jockey or “golliwog” dolls. When someone sees an object that radically displays African Americans or Indigenous peoples in a certain way, features that stick out as a way to ridicule, it transcends their souls to that time of racial superiority over those groups. Just as Virginia Governor Northam thought “it’s okay to take a photo with (either, it’s unclear who is who) black face or in a Klan robe, people collecting items of that nature have an understanding that it’s okay to collect, store, sell, cherish items like this. In reality, those objects further stand as a caste system holding marginalized people back.

No matter what antique mall I visited, these items stood out to me as I noticed white Americans flooded each shop. I reflected on the questions: “What is an antique mall?” or, “what do these items mean to the community which surrounds the shop?” In September 2018, a New York Times article answered these questions. To Kwame Anthony Appiah, “honoring service to a dishonorable cause can itself be dishonorable.”

Of course, to the journalist for the Chicago Tribune, these antique malls are museums, of which capitalize on the sale of goods and the voyeur of the American past. However, these institutions not only capitalize on the sale of historical objects but offer a sort of nostalgia for white Americans to reflect on. Antique malls display objects from a past time. These same shops post high prices on their items, almost giving the sense that “only the wealthy may shop here.” Antique malls serve many purposes, but most troubling, they exhibit items from a time where colonizers overpowered the colonized.

I asked a few friends what they thought. To DeMarcus Beckham, an African American community activist in Georgia, these items resemble a problematic past where white Americans used Black Americana art as showpieces that parodied or stigmatized his culture.

To Dr. Kyle Mays, an Assistant Professor at UCLA, antique malls stand as institutions that uplift white supremacy and a settler colonial collective culture. These shopping centers are more than a “museum for ordinary folk,” as Mays suggests white “poor and working-class people participate in voyeurism and consumer culture” in which the white elite dominate and fantasize about the days of legal de facto segregation and racism.

To Frankie Bauer, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, these items dehumanize indigenous peoples by perpetuating cultural and racial stereotyping. Without context, Americans are misinformed on the ways in which these objects dominate different ethnic societies.

The history of violence between Indigenous peoples revolves around the idea of “American Innocence,” an idea discussed in Boyd Cothran’s Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence, that argues that as settlers colonized the American West, conflicts between Native and non-Native peoples resulted in the idea that settlers were “defending” themselves from “savage” or “hostile” Indians.[3] This mechanism placed all the blame on Indigenous peoples, and gave the United States government power to punish, eradicate, and kill large numbers of Indigenous peoples not assimilating to civilized American society. That “innocence” that many settlers claimed during violent encounters with Indigenous peoples translated as the lack of opportunity for these marginalized peoples. Furthermore, as antique shops participate in the sale of objects that demonize or objectify these cultures in the wrong way holds back the opportunity for African Americans or Native people to move forward in the twenty-first century.

Native American cultural appropriation can be seen through antique malls, from the Deep South in Macon, Georgia to the midwestern shops in Fowlerville, Michigan. Settler colonialism troubles the ways in which Native American possess their own identity. Both Adrienne Keene and Paul Chaat Smith have discussed the ways white Americans have attempted to control the memory of Native America. Just as sports mascots perpetuate stereotypes that mock Native identity, the sale and display of Native items at antique malls continues to play on American Innocence and reinforce colonialism. That bond neglects the opportunity for Native peoples to separate from those narratives and have control over their own identity, history, and perception.

If we are going to consider antique malls as historical institutions, as “repositories of our youth,” then a sort of contextualization around these shops could better provide information that does not stigmatize marginalized peoples. The removal of problematic items that project the days of racism, whether against African Americans or Native Americans, allow for each group to have control of their identity and culture. In challenging the notion that whiteness and white supremacy hovers around the “ordinary,” changes will transform antique malls into progressive institutions that could be considered “museums for all folk.” Through that change, America will use Césaire’s move forward with their eyes wide open.

John R. Legg is a graduate student in History at Virginia Tech, where he studies Native American history and works in the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @thejohnlegg. 

References

[1] Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism. 1955. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 31.

[2] Jonathan Martin, Trip Gabriel, and Alan Blinder, “Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam, Defies Calls to Resign Over Racist Photo” New York Times, February 2, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/us/politics/ralph-northam-virginia-governor.html.

[3] Boyd Cothran, Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 2014), 19.

Author: John R. Legg

Graduate student at Virginia Tech. Graduate assistant in the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. See full CV at www.johnrlegg.com

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