What’s in a face?
The answer, one finds after a walk through the colorful, compact, but powerful exhibit at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, is the ability to define one’s self-image, both as an individual and as a people. “Hidden and Forbidden: Art and Objects of Intolerance; Evolving Depictions of Blacks in America” will be on display through June 1.
The objectification and dehumanizing of African-Americans by whites in post-Civil War America through imagery, toys, and everyday objects was a process that began after emancipation, according to David Byer-Tyre, the curator, who put the exhibit together with Kathryn M. Curran, the society’s director, and Georgette Grier-Key, a board member.
“The slave owner had a vested interest that the slave would be healthy,” he said last Thursday. After investing the type of money required to buy a slave, he said, it was in the slave owner’s interest to protect his or her health and welfare.
Once freed, though, the African-American masses became a threat to whites, both financially and spiritually, leading to the metamorphosis in the way blacks were viewed, both nationally and locally, the exhibit shows.
Realistic images of Africans and African-Americans predating the Civil War greet a visitor upon entering the exhibit. There is a beautiful applique quilt dating from the 1840s that shows an African-American woman churning butter, and an oil portrait of a free black woman.
Then the transition occurs, and suddenly, in post-emancipation America, African-Americans are seen in totemic images, sometimes ape-like, sometimes bird-like, with strange red lips and leering, rolling eyes. Thus began the objectification of a people, Mr. Byer-Tyre said.
The toys in the exhibit, in a grouping titled “Jim Crow,” exemplify this.
“The toy reveals something sinister,” Mr. Byer-Tyre said. An African-American child had limited choices as to what to play with. “If you were playing with a white doll, you’d be chastised by both races,” Mr. Byer-Tyre said, looking at the Little Black Sambo, Gollywog, and Jim Crow dolls in a shadowbox-type case. “None of them depict the child. The skin is extremely dark,” he pointed out. The figures and images all share an unnatural charcoal-black color, not reflective of the rainbow of skin tones in black America.
The images, he said, were created in the North, particularly in New York, for consumption in the South and across America.
All this, however, was not happening in a vacuum. Men like Richard Allen, a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the late-18th century, Frederick Douglass, publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator and the first African-American congressman following the Civil War, are celebrated in another illuminated case, followed by the more violent form of white oppression, the Ku Klux Klan.
Counter to popular belief, the K.K.K. was alive and well on eastern Long Island, as the chilling garment, including hood, that are on display in another case along with a noosed rope, remind us.
“We call the Ku Klux Klan homegrown terrorists,” Ms. Greir-Key said. On display along with the local K.K.K. outfit is an embosser that reads, “Women of the Ku Klux Klan, Riverhead, New York.”
Ms. Curran recalled how the society acquired the piece.
“When the embosser came in, it was handed to me by somebody who said, ‘The family said, “get this out of here!” ’ It was either the historical society or the Long Island Sound.”
The K.K.K. outfit was left in a bag on the society’s doorstep. Ms. Grier-Key pointed out that the hood had extensive sweat stains, as well as repairs, all consistent with the garment being well used.
She understands the guilt that such objects can engender, but is grateful the items were donated. “We are a historical society. We’re not here to edit history, we’re here to teach history,” she said.
Also in the exhibit is a wall showing how corporate America embraced the racist Jim Crow image.
“People become overly desensitized,” Ms. Grier-Key said. “As an African-American, you have no control over how these likenesses are used. What is odd about the advertising images is that the images have become icons, copyrighted. Aunt Jemima has seven different faces.”
The American entertainment industry was happily on board, as well, with whites in blackface portraying African-Americans as buffoons, as shown by another section of the exhibit.
The exhibit ends with the various images depicting the political struggle of black Americans, interwoven into a larger body politic.
“Typically, white America looks at African-American history as being separate. To this day, when you provide a narrative, it is seen as a unique experience, as if whites don’t appropriate blackness on every level,” Mr. Byer-Tyre said.
The overall layout of the exhibit was a collaboration between the three historians, based on the materials available.
Many of the items shown are from private collections, including that of Mr. Byer-Tyre. “Why shouldn’t African Americans take control over things that were used to manipulate them?” he said of African-Americans collecting the toys and objects that were once used to demean blacks. Such objects, he said, act as a reminder of the danger of letting someone else control images of one’s self.
Education and enlightenment were important objectives for the trio. “It teaches tolerance in a time when bullying is going on.” Ms. Grier-Key said, and offers “a teaching moment, to teach children that it is okay to look different. It is okay to be darker-skinned.”
While working on the exhibit, Ms. Grier-Key and Ms. Curran went before the society’s board to warn them that there could be some negative reaction to it. They wanted the board to go forward with its eyes open. The board backed their efforts, and brought Mr. Byer-Tyre on board.
Along with the antique items, a few modern works by black artists are sprinkled in as a juxtaposition.
Reaction to the exhibit has been visceral, but overwhelmingly positive, although one viewer expressed dismay about it to Ms. Curran. “One African-American man came in and said, ‘This should not be negative. Black History Month should not be negative.’ ”
Her response was simple. “This is history, it is not something we can change.”
The historical society’s exhibition space is at 300 West Main Street in Riverhead.