One of the finest equestrian statues in the nation stands in a park in Memphis, Tennessee.* Designed by an accomplished sculptor working in the Neoclassical manner and cast in bronze in Paris, the century-old monument is a historic landmark and an important feature in the city’s history.
I’d like to take a sledgehammer to it.
The statue depicts Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave profiteer, war criminal, and Ku Klux Klan terrorist. As activists and politicians call out Confederate monuments like the Forrest Memorial as symbols of hate and demand their removal across the South, we should also consider smaller, more subtle examples of lingering evils—some of which may even lurk in grandma’s curio cabinet. The evil material past—taking the form of both rare and worthless things—may hide behind your aesthetic preferences and family heritage, perhaps even as heirlooms you proudly display in your home. Unlike the brazen daylight attacks of verdigris horsemen charging public spaces, these antique objects of hate conduct subtle night raids in our subconscious, enlisting us in malevolent schemes plotted decades or centuries ago. Some of these old things we are obligated to destroy. Others we must keep, even treasure.
I consider myself a preservationist. I’m a professional antiques dealer and a lifelong collector. Antiques can embody some of our best characteristics—craftsmanship, artistry, care—but they may also expose our worst, carrying forth past prejudices and hate. We cannot hold the past to our present standards of morality—we are more or less creatures of our own generation’s moral paradigm—but we are obligated to consider how our contemporary values clash with those of the past.
As an antiques dealer, I find myself often drawn to historically tainted objects because they deserve discussion and even appreciation, especially if they shed light on troubling aspects of American character and illuminate the present, in however harsh the light. But then there are objects that are so inherently offensive, even dangerous, that I argue they do not deserve a future. Smashing bronze bigots is one thing, but those smaller, unexpected objects—your great-grandmother’s 1930s Aunt Jemima cookie jar or dad’s 1950s coloring book of Indians—those, too, deserve a reckoning. The question is, which objects are troubling and which are malicious? Which evil old things are we obliged to keep and which must we throw away?
The material past is present, and as a white male antiques dealer, I was recently reminded firsthand of the threat it poses. Several months back I was at an antiques show and ran across a wooden puppet dancing figure, about 12" tall, representing a white performer in blackface. Its limbs are jointed and a wire with a handle is stuck through its back. As a dealer with an interest in Americana, I’ve seen probably hundreds of similar jointed puppets, but given their racist history I had never felt right purchasing one. But while the majority of wooden blackface figures have standardized features replicating racist stereotypes in popular culture, this one is different. It’s “folk art,” that is to say clearly homemade, with an eccentric hand-painted face and imperfectly cut limbs, giving it a certain indescribable energy some old things have—a personality, a kind of inanimate life. And it was priced for resale.
So I bought it. Another interesting thing for inventory, nothing more.
Just a couple of days later, I had the blackface dancing man on my table for sale at another antiques show. A white customer picked it up and began to play with it. I talked to her about the racist roots of the thing, but as she moved the wire handle, the wooden man began to dance. I hadn’t seen him in action yet. A flick of the wrist gave the toy life, sending its jointed limbs kicking and bent arms spinning in a mad dance, movements so lifelike and slapdash that I was caught off guard by my own guffaws. To my surprise, my customers and I were entertained by the thing to the point of side-splitting laughter. My friend said I should take a video of it. And so I picked up my phone and captured my customer’s white hand on the wire from which the black body dangled and danced.
Later—and with hesitation now justified—I shared the video to my business social media accounts. I thought about discussing the black figure in the context of its time and its unambiguous racist connotations, but I rationalized my action: Why not let the toy speak for itself? Now apart from his bigoted origins by nearly a century, couldn’t we just enjoy him as a silly, fun thing today? He is, after all, only a goofy wooden toy.
“Maybe you don’t realize (at least I hope you don’t) that this ‘folk art dancing man, c. 1920’ is a black faced minstrel!!! This post is AT BEST culturally insensitive.” Shortly after I shared the video, a black man who follows my Instagram account posted the comment.
I felt terrible.
The jointed wooden puppet is a blackface minstrel mockery. It is a hateful and oppressive depiction of another race. In my careless whiteness, I not only failed to defuse a racially weaponized object, I consciously enabled it. How many other people of color had winced after finding the stupid toy in their Instagram feeds? I apologized to him, saying that I failed to dive deep in my presentation of the figure. We exchanged messages, but my further explanations and justifications may have dug the hole even deeper. He did not respond.
Somehow, a handful of inert painted wood had not only come to life before me, but the blackface toy had also fulfilled an oppressive function designed by Jim Crow a century ago—to denigrate and infantilize African American identity by manipulating and ridiculing a black body and black culture. What’s more, despite the progressive and unprejudiced views shared among us, the handful of white people gathered and laughing around my table became unwitting bigots. The wire in our hands was also lodged in our own backs. The black figure had me laughing in a way I can’t shake.
I take responsibility for my actions, but the incident underscored the unexpected force of the material past to influence our behavior in undesirable, even grotesque ways. We can define the “material past” as the objects and architecture from other eras. It actively shapes almost every aspect of our lives. Consider the bends in the road you drive every day—plotted 200 years ago—then the height of your desk—designed 20 years ago —and the capacity of your coffee cup—decided two years ago. But the material past will do more than ration your dose of caffeine.
Let’s return to Forrest for a moment. In 1905 wealthy Memphis whites paid to cast him in bronze—and replant his bones underneath—not to honor history but to weaponize it. Forrest, nicknamed the “Wizard in the Saddle,” defended his right to buy and sell people like livestock during the Civil War—during which he infamously ordered the slaughter of hundreds of surrendered black Union soldiers—and afterward led the Ku Klux Klan as its first Grand Wizard, which was named in his honor. Disguised as public art, the statue was an act of white terror meant to enforce Jim Crow laws stripping blacks of their rights. Enchanted by artistic merit and now “historicity,” the Wizard in the Saddle casts a powerful spell: White supremacists continue to fester in his shadow, but even those passersby without prejudice who admire it as art or simply accept it as park scenery are complicit in its racist agenda. Meanwhile, the statue continues to alienate people of color visiting the park to this day—a century-old deadly threat cast in bronze.
If you accept that some objects have intrinsic moral dimensions and agendas, then people like me—that is, those who buy, sell, and collect objects potentially tainted by the worst chapters of history—must recognize the consequences of and take responsibility for preserving poison. This is not to call out as bad people collectors or dealers who handle such objects. The militaria dealer selling a Nazi medal may believe his or her inventory is an evenhanded presentation of history, good or bad. The buyer and collector of Nazi medals may be driven with all the ideological fervor of a stamp collector—curating a historical category is his or her aim, nothing more. But at some point, the handling of “immoral” objects also becomes immoral.
Though we all encounter the material past in our daily lives, collectors, museum curators, and—most of all—antiques dealers carry the burden of material history. We decide what to carry. And in so doing, whether we know it or not, we decide what to leave behind. Certainly, as a society, we must leave Forrest behind. The question I asked myself was, should I have left the wooden dancing man behind?
Several years ago I was asked by a woman to have a look at a few things at her mother’s home in southern Maine. As the daughter guided me around the house, her mother—a charming elderly woman, all smiles, not more than 5' tall—chattered alongside, telling wistful stories about her possessions. When we reached the trunks in the attic—by steps too steep for an 80-something—the daughter quietly warned me of the neatly folded and pressed white robes. “Mom and Dad were big in the Klan,” she whispered with a pained, helpless smile.
I wasn’t sure what to say to the sweet old lady when she offered me coffee after I came downstairs.
I did not open the trunk containing those white robes that day. But what if one day I unwittingly purchased such a trunk? As an antiques dealer, what am I supposed to do with antique KKK robes, lovingly stitched by a stranger’s bigoted grandma? I should toss them in the trash.
One might argue that such objects are historical—which they are, but heck, everything we make is. Some old things have a value to history—another standard-issue white robe from a dead white supremacist does not. It can’t teach us anything we don’t already know about an evil organization. It still, however, can hurt people.
This is an evil object we should leave behind.
But then again the material past sometimes coughs up something so appalling it seems important to keep around. While browsing at a local antiques show, I found myself stopped dead in a dealer friend’s booth. Among the quirky and thoughtful Americana she typically sold—photographs, advertising, artful found objects—I saw a set of three miniature hand-painted lead figures like toy soldiers. These, however, had hollows for eyes under white pointed hoods. The toy Klansmen—probably dating to the 1920s—had been painstakingly hand-molded and painted, perhaps by a parent for a child. The toys were so ludicrous and outrageous they struck me as absurd.
Now what to make of these? To begin with, I knew the dealer well enough to know she wasn’t a racist. I also know that these were unusual for her to sell. I asked about them.
“Aren’t they awful?” she said. “I wouldn’t normally buy something like this but they seem significant.”
The toy Klansmen were offensive—even more than the actual robes—but much, much more significant. Unlike the white cloth—simply uniform hate—the monstrous toys demand reflection. Some old things can make us see the world—past and present—in a different way, and in my opinion the miniature Klansmen were of that kind.
The lead figures embody a childish ideology of hate and ignorance, and yet the idea of the toys in an actual child’s innocent hands is repulsively un-childlike. What’s more, the toys are literally made of poison, one that will blunt a person’s cognition, trigger aggression and memory loss—or one could say stupidity, violence, and a flawed understanding of history, the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan. Metaphorical layers aside, the unspeakable wrong of KKK members brainwashing their children with white supremacist toys is a material fact too egregious to ignore.
Like the white robes, the lead Klansmen also have the power to poison the present with evil. However, the unique toys provide a valuable insight into our history, embodying American racism in a disturbing and haunting physical form. Though awful, the lead Klansmen should be kept for others to confront in the present and future—preserved because they are useful and valued because they are despicable.
To some people—perhaps especially antiques dealers—the idea of picking and choosing what to save from the material past is like asking a weatherman to pick and choose the weather: how can you deny what’s right before your eyes? Still others might dismiss all of this as political correctness: at best useless hand-wringing over harmless old stuff, at worst a call to censor history and excise a past deemed too painful to recall.
But the material past is not the past nor is it history. Antiques dealers and collectors discard undesirable items constantly—it’s an inevitable part of the business. And for someone who is steeped in the material past to claim that antiques exist in some kind of abstract, neutral historical context without affecting the present—that’s delusional, even dangerous.
Take a Hitler Youth knife as an example. We’d be kidding ourselves to say the knife is only a historical relic or that keeping it around “preserves history.” Let’s not even take into account that it’s a lethal weapon—the blade is its least fearsome element. The knife is an obvious example of an evil object. So much of the allure of the Nazi Party was material. Heroic monuments, imposing architecture, smart uniforms, impressive weaponry—these represented more than the power of the Third Reich, they constituted that power. That Hitler Youth knife is not some neutral historical object—it retains its material power to this day, embodying the hate and violence it sought to inspire in German youth. Even if it is presented as a historic relic of World War II or something to scorn, it’s ultimately a pretty cool knife to a modern teenage boy. He might also think it would be pretty cool to own and maybe pretty cool to wear on his belt. And once he’s bought into the material appeal of the thing, who’s to say that the enamel symbol emblazoned on its side won’t seem pretty cool too? Before long, the German words for “Blood and Honor” etched on the blade may also become etched on his worldview.
But what about the historical value of the knife? As a singular object, it’s next to none. Thousands were manufactured. Museums already have examples in their collections, and it’s a well-documented item in practically every history book on the period.
However, the knife’s potential to do harm in the present and future is significant. By keeping such things alive we allow evil to cut through time—with the real possibility of drawing blood.
I say chuck the thing in the river.
Isn’t that rewriting history, though? By chucking it in the river, aren’t we erasing and sanitizing our past?
No, unless you’re misunderstanding the definitions of history and the material past. First of all, we often equate “history” and “the past.” They are two different things. The past is a time gone by. History is a story about that time told in the present—a story that is inherently flawed and arbitrary, partly because the historian decides what evidence to include and what evidence to ignore. Each generation rewrites history not to change the past, but ideally to find closer approximations of its varied truths, often through the lens of present-day values.
We often mistake old things for history or the past itself. The material past is a little like history: It’s edited, but by individual decisions and happenstance over time. For every old thing that survives, countless other period objects were broken, used up, or thrown away. What remains provides invaluable source material for writing history but does not constitute history. Bric-a-brac filling junk shops, collections arranged under glass, objets d’art lavishly illustrated in auction catalogs—all of these present a flawed and arbitrary sliver of a bygone time. This is not history, nor is it the past. Antiques dealers should know. We preserve a fraction of what we consign to oblivion, whether in overflowing dumpsters at an estate cleanout or passed lots at auction. Certainly, the fate of our material past is largely driven by the market, and low demand effectively means a trip to the curb. But for most dealers—and certainly for collectors—choosing things to keep and save from the grinding wheel of time is a personal choice. Specialties and taste guide us, and often irrationally, away from “bargains” in undesirable categories.
What’s more, antiques dealers and collectors are also listening to the historian inside us when we make those decisions of what antiques to value and what to discard—choosing, for instance, to value the history of Federal country furniture of 1810 over the history of Victorian mass-produced furniture of 1840. If the history of American side chairs can motivate us to edit our material past, then why can’t the history of Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan? We constantly chuck old things based on arbitrary stylistic criteria. We should not be afraid to also do so on moral terms based in sound history.
Let me be clear: I’m not calling for a wholesale purge of offensive objects, nor am I trying to set a uniform standard for handling them here. The complex history and layered meanings of various antiques must be considered on a case-by-case basis. My purpose is to argue that we should all—especially antiques dealers and collectors—reckon with the power of evil objects and determine the cost of keeping them in circulation. We are the curators of the present and must make hard decisions as to what to preserve and what to discard, to benefit both our time and future generations. When confronted with a disturbing antique, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
1.) Does the object represent a perspective, practice, or ideology that today is widely seen as immoral, discriminatory, or destructive?
2.) Could the object cause emotional, physical, or societal harm? If the answer to these two questions is yes, the following questions should be considered:
3.) Is the object commonplace, standard issue, or well documented?
4.) Or, does the object have unique or striking historical, cultural, or artistic value?
If the answer to the third question is yes—the thing is a form of conventional, unambiguous hate—it probably deserves to be on that oft-quoted ash heap of history. In other words, chuck it. You won’t be rewriting history. You’ll be honoring history by acting on what it teaches.
However, if you answer yes to question four and believe the item is significant and provides a unique perspective on the past, then the piece likely should be saved. Important objects do not need to be extraordinary nor valuable—they may even be mass-produced—but should only have the capacity to inform history or, as physical objects, viscerally teach us about the past.
When in doubt, keep the thing around, however odious it might seem. Present and future generations probably need to see it.
But we have work to do yet. Owners and sellers of evil objects must present them in unambiguous terms. Don’t be afraid to call the thing out for what it is and represents. As antiques dealers, should you offer something of this kind for sale on the market, don’t refer to the offensive piece in generic neutral terms such as “black Americana.” Label it “racist.” Whether discussing it with a friend or a customer, the owner should place the object in historical context and also talk about its meaning and importance from a perspective grounded in the values of the present. After all, the piece no longer exists in the past—it exists now and will and should collide with the values of today.
So let’s return to my blackface dancing toy. Is it so offensive that it deserves to be on the ash heap? Or does the wooden man serve a purpose, that is, can he teach us something about our past?
The toy embodies a derogatory view of African Americans that was acceptable in mainstream culture a century ago and lingers still today. Innocent as the toy may seem, it also has the ability to do harm. Not only do its cartoon features and exaggerated movements demean blacks, but its design invites whites, intentionally or not, to play minstrel show, debasing black culture and treating the black body as an object.
Unlike other such toys, however, this one is handmade folk art, and its abstract features give it a complex character when compared to the cookie-cutter racism of mass-produced examples. But the most provocative and sinister element of the toy is shared with others of its kind: the wire skewer in the black body’s back, which when lifted sends the loosely pinned limbs of the man flying in a crazed, idiotic dance.
Blackface minstrel shows established the African American’s role in white society as “entertainer-fool,” providing a harmless and productive definition of black identity while ensuring that the black body remained held as an object of ridicule. Literally given life by a white hand, the piece here dances those appropriated steps, but it also somehow takes on a life of its own. I swear that watching people playing with the thing you’d mistake the sometimes lifelike—and I’ll say it, exuberant and hilarious—motions of the figure as propelling the hand, not the other way around. Whites have appropriated black artistic culture for centuries. Could one say that this racist wooden toy, made at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, unintentionally embodies the creative and moral agency of blacks in American culture? He might seem like an inanimate puppet, but maybe it’s the white hand on the wire that moves to his wooden steps rather than the other way round. So I guess for me the question is, who holds the wire and in whose back is the wire fixed?
As both a metaphor and historical object, the blackface dancing man can teach us much about race, power, and culture in America. It has the potential to do harm, but I don’t think we should take the easy way out by throwing it away. But some may ask, what gives you the right as a white guy to decide if a racist object should be saved and then sell it to make a buck? That’s a hard question to answer, and one I struggle with. Like it or not, old things like the wooden puppet are everywhere. The individuals who happen to find them decide whether they should live or die. In my view, troubling objects are worth saving—and selling—in order to be true to our history and teach ourselves their most difficult lessons. Those things and the insights they can provide should have value—in fact, they must have value if market forces are going to preserve them. Without dealers and collectors who recognize the importance of these items, they simply wouldn’t exist.
That said, we must do what we can to ensure that the monetary value of our objectionable material past aligns with our moral values. Things of unambiguous evil—especially things that retain their ability to warp minds and mutilate bodies—these should have no value. Whatever historical merit they possess deserves recognition in a museum, if anywhere. Otherwise, they are not only worthless but pose a great danger.
A kid decides to goof around in an old KKK robe he finds in a trunk and—just like its original owner—will shock and frighten his African American neighbors. A militaria dealer sells a swastika armband to a neo-Nazi who—just like its original owner—will wear it while wielding a truncheon at a violent rally. A folk art dealer sells a 19th-century “black Americana” ring toss game to a white racist who—just like its original owner—will throw rings into Sambo’s cartoon mouth with his laughing children. History warns us to not repeat the sins of the past. Treasuring the residue of historical sins risks perpetuating them, but cleansing those sins from our material history is also to deny who we are. Antiques dealers and everyone with an interest in the material past should consider the consequences of handling old things laced with poisonous values—lest we put lead Klansmen in the hands of a toddler.
*Since this article was written, the Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument in Memphis, Tennessee, was removed.
Adam Irish is an antiques dealer and owns Old as Adam in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Originally published in the March 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest