Thursday, February 07, 2008

Black Americana Preserving the Uncomfortable Past

It has been many years since I visited the Museum in Black run by Brian Breye. Many years ago it was located in historic Lamert Park in Los Angeles. I will never forget my first visit.

It was a quiet summer morning as I poked my head into the open door. The owner was no where to be seen. I wandered the dark isles of African artifacts in solitude. Spotting an open door in the back, bathed in light, I slipped in and was confronted by a multitude of Black Americana artifacts and memorabilia. There were images on every wall, even the ceiling. I remember a large wooden hutch full of salt and pepper shakers. Post cards, Valentines, Aunt Jemima in every conceivable utilitarian form. Note Pads, Cookie Jars, Syrup containers, Toaster Covers and more. Artifacts and memorabilia from slavery, segregation and Jim Crow. My first thought ~ Well this puts "my collection" of odds and ends to shame. Just then, the owner tapped me on the shoulder and said rather firmly; “This room isn't ready for the public, it's my private collection.”

For the first time, I stood in front of someone who shared my passion to rescue these items. I wasn't going anywhere! I needed to know more about this collection. For me, the images of an uncomfortable past are a great source of knowledge, understanding, even pride. The fact that my grandparents and their grandparents had lived, struggled and rose above a society so intrenched in hatred, myths and stereotypes has been a great source of inspiration in my life. So we talked about the haunting images first, the scarcity of many of these treasures, who the collectors where and why imports and copies were being made today. I left with a new found understanding of my need to save these treasures and the importance of the past.

I've often wondered if the Museum in Black is still there and how it has changed. Since that chance meeting with Brian Breye, I realized that rescuing and preserving this slice of history is an honorable obsession. To reach the heights, to climb the difficult mountains of everyday life, we must understand and draw upon the strength of our ancestors. Our manifest destiny has been written and carved out of the uncomfortable past.

Here is a very small part of Pearl’s Private Collection:

1 comment:

Susana said...


I have never collected "Black Americana." I remember when I first came across some pieces in an antique shop in my early twenties I thought it quite bawdy and in such bad taste that I wondered why anyone would collect it. But then the other part of me felt a deep respect for it, too, because of what it represents: the suffering and hardship that Blacks went through due to slavery, segregation, prejudice.

Now I'm a 4th generation Mexican american nearing 40. I was in some antique stores last week and I felt somewhat the same feelings. I am drawn to these types of memorabilia, but I wouldn't actually collect it. (For one thing with 7 kids I don't collect much of anything!)

So it occurred to me that this stuff needs to be recorded for our posterity and never forgotten. I realized that I wanted to create a an online, visual collection. So I took photos of every piece I could find in several shops and now I want to find more.

I have begun a virtual museum.

I am embedding your slideshow, though I would love to be able to save the photos in case you ever remove the slide show for some reason.

I would also love to see the rest of your collection!!! I think it is a shame that there are only, what, 2 black american museums and neither has their pieces on display on-line. The public needs to be able to view these.

Tahnks for sharing yours! I hope to hear from you.