Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My email to Terri's Giftshoppe re: mammy jars

To the owner/operator of Terri's Giftshoppe:

Dear Madame/Sir:

Today was my first trip to New Hope and to your store. I really enjoyed myself; I plan to return in October.

There were moments, however, that I did not find so enjoyable. In fact, in these moments, I was deeply disturbed
by what I saw. Unfortunately, one of these non-pleasurable moments occurred in your (otherwise lovely) gift shop.

When customers walk into your store, turn left, walk towards the far left wall, and once reaching that wall -- turn around to view the items on the shelf (parallel to the far left wall) -- they see a fairly extensive collection of "mammy" jars. Now, this kind of imagery/item/memorabilia is something that I expect to see when I visit the Jim Crow museum, for example, or the marketplace in South Carolina, Georgia or any of the various states in the Deep South. I don't expect to see "mammy" memorabilia of any kind in the Northern states, and certainly not in New Hope, PA -- a town my partner and I couldn't wait to visit because we heard it was so liberal, fun and gay friendly.

Since your shop is not a museum or a formal archive of some kind, I don't understand the purpose of making products like "mammy" jars available to the public. For me, "mammy" jars are not enjoyable sites -- they are deeply painful sites, and a deeply disturbing reminder of the United States' not so distant past as country that once legalized and maintained, for approximately 60 long years, race segregation, and in the more distant past, legalized and maintained, for approximately 300 (far too) long years, the institution of slavery -- these two systems of oppression were (and are) an embarrassing contradiction to the ideal of democracy upon which this country is built.

Some history on the "mammy" image:
  "From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests    
  of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks -- in this
  case, black women -- were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher,
  and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery."
  (taken from:

Indeed, it is crucial that Jim Crow and slavery be remembered but nowhere -- nowhere -- should these institutions be memorialized in a manner that desensitizes and denies their powerfully violent and oppressive character. Which is to say that the artifacts of slavery and Jim Crow should not be "fun" consumer items available to the public with no explanation or clarification whatsoever of the storeowners' intent in selling these products. What conclusion am I to draw about you and your store? That you value Jim Crow memorabilia? That you approve of racist caricatures that dehumanize black people by portraying them as objects -- things to be bought, sold and put on display? Should I conclude that you think "mammy" jars are cool and fun items appropriate for display in one's home? Or in a venue where people of many races, and different life experiences, and various views might respond both positively and negatively to the site of such items?

While the "mammy" jars signify a part of our collective past (as people of color and white people) that for some of us (including myself) is something that I read about or experience through a movie. Let me remind you that there are people alive today (people that may wander into your store) whose experiences -- frequently horrible, violent experiences -- are memorialized, and thus conjured up, by the "mammy" jars for sale in your gift shop.

I realize that people of all races might purchase these "mammy" jars. I am confident, however, that, if your store were located in a much more racially diverse area, the site of these jars would draw countless negative reactions.

Furthermore, it is significant that New Hope is a majority white area -- white people should not become used to, and therefore, unmoved by the site of racist stereotypes in the form of kitchenware, knick knacks or what have you.

As a sign of respect to customers of all races that enter your store, out of respect for this country's history, please remove the mammy jars from your shelves. I plan to visit your store when I return to New Hope in October.
Thank you for your kind response and attention to this matter.



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