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News writer and reporter Jessica Thomas' new column, "Unsolicited Opinions," opens up space dedicated to her opinions, books and sometimes other things. (Photo by Reilly Dixon)

Unsolicited Opinions | Keep racist items out of stores

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I graduated from Greenon High School, a short distance from Yellow Springs. There, I had two nicknames: watermelon lips and Aunt Jemima. That was the school where I was forced to read the part of Tituba when we acted out “The Crucible,” by Arthur Miller, and the district where I learned that threatening to fight a white girl was a more punishable offense than the racist language she used toward me.

I remember when I first heard the term “minstrel show” in a course called American Popular Music during my first year of undergrad. In the class, my professor explained that it was an early form of performance art that was deeply rooted in racism, where actors in blackface would imitate Black Americans in stereotypical ways to entertain white audiences. He told us that these shows sparked a whole host of products — from statues to kitchenware, to signs — that replicated images from these performances. Learning about this I thought back to those high school nicknames, those experiences. I understood how that legacy played out — it was the only context in which some of my classmates could place me, whether they were intentional about it or not.

Since then, we have had national discussions about blackface, condemning those who use it and advocating for brands such as Quaker Oats to rebrand their pancake mix, formerly known as Aunt Jemima. Confederate statues have come down in the South, being relegated to museums that explain the true history of the Civil War. Juneteenth is now a national holiday that we will mark next week and locally celebrate this weekend. To some, these are huge wins, but it is very important to resist the temptation of accepting these gestures and moving on, declaring racism a thing of the past; it is still important to hold ourselves and each other accountable as we eat our red velvet cake.

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I recently saw a post on Facebook about a store in our village, Rose & Sal, that has “vintage” items for sale that are, at best, distasteful. A perusal through the store will show an array of items — cigar store Indians, blackface lawn jockeys and Mammy figurines — that one can purchase.

A ceramic item depicting blackface for sale at Yellow Springs vintage store Rose & Sal. The image here was taken as a screenshot from a solicitation post the store made on its social media account. (Submitted photo)

After seeing a Rose & Sal post advertising a jug with a sculpture of a Black man’s head with giant lips, black skin and exaggerated eyes, I went to the website of the creator listed by Rose & Sal, Sandy Cole, a white sculpture artist from North Carolina. Looking at her various pieces, I saw several with features reminiscent of minstrelsy — black faces, exaggerated noses and lips and large mouths with gapped teeth. I wrote a message to Rose & Sal, sharing the website of the Goldsboro (Florida) Museum, which explains the history of blackface statues, hoping the proprietors of a store in Yellow Springs would see the error in selling items deeply rooted in anti-black racism. In response, the proprietors said the sculpture was made in 1999, and the artist was “well known and collected,” as if that justifies selling these pieces in 2023. It doesn’t, and I do wonder if I would receive the same pushback if it was memorabilia clearly linked to far-right or Nazi movements. 

I have to believe, though, that education and reinforcement are able to change minds and hearts. I hope that those reading this will “call in’’ the proprietors of Rose & Sal and encourage them to follow the advice of Sam Benac, a dear friend who wrote a letter to the editor this week suggesting that the items be donated to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery in Big Rapids, Michigan. The museum curator, David Pilgrim, collects these items so that he can educate people on the legacy of Jim Crow. He writes in his essay titled “The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects” that his collection of objects illustrates the horrors of Jim Crow, showing how the laws of the time were reinforced by racist imagery. According to Pilgrim, items with racist imagery continue to go up in value. I’m not surprised, as the number of hate groups has skyrocketed in my lifetime.

If Yellow Springs is to be a welcoming village, we have to work together to reject stereotypes of BIPOC and other minority groups. We shouldn’t have stores in our village that peddle these racist images and label them as “vintage.” I believe in education — it’s the only way we can attempt to avoid repeating the past. Let these items become a thing of the past — stored in a place where we can learn about their histories and discontinue the practice of relying on stereotypes and tropes that are ultimately used to divide us. I hope that the owners of Rose & Sal will engage in good faith with people trying to provide historical context and show the real harms of these items.

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