Back in: black

There are people who've told me I should be ashamed," says Carol Mundy as she looks around at what's in her dining room, where there's a small sofa but no place left to dine. She calls it "my room full of little derogatory stuff."

Every flat surface in the room -- indeed, in just about Mundy's whole house -- is covered with African-American memorabilia, mementos and historical items. Mundy, who is black, has more than 1,000 pieces that either relate to black history or depict images, often offensive ones, of blacks. Everywhere you turn you see something fascinating: 19th-century photographs and trading cards, early issues of "Jet" and "Ebony" magazines, original theater programs (Paul Robeson in Othello on Broadway, opera singer Marian Anderson in Washington, D.C.), Muhammad Ali-brand black shoe polish.

The dining room packed with "derogatory stuff" is enough to make anyone surprised, uncomfortable or more than a little disappointed in humanity. Probably all three. Mundy has copies of a 1901 New York Times half-page cartoon called "Pore Lil Mose" framed on her walls; the black title character's "family crest" includes a watermelon, dice and a switchblade. "Coloreds only" signs lie here and there. Sitting everywhere are cookie jars, salt shakers and product packaging with blacks grinning, looking foolish or looking lewd -- always with dark, dark skin, thick, thick lips and bulging eyes. "Wherever we are, there's always a chicken, a watermelon or a craps game," says Mundy with resignation.

The collectibility of one of these knickknacks -- a Mammy, an Aunt Jemimah, a little black Sambo -- has in recent years risen sharply, and the trend probably got another jolt of coolness with the release last month of Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" (which received a good amount of publicity but struggled at the box office, so that it hasn't even managed to show up on Central Florida movie screens). The film's main character owns black memorabilia, as does Lee himself. Mundy, who's been collecting for about seven years, says she has noticed a spike in demand (and in prices) in the short time since she started.

"She may feel she's seen it taken off, but I've been collecting for more than 15 years, almost 20 now," says Kenneth Goings, professor of African-American history at the University of Memphis and author of "Minnie and Uncle Mose," a book about black collectibles. "In the late '70s and early '80s it started taking off, and it just hasn't stopped. The prices now have no relationship to reality."

"This period is what bothers people the most," Mundy says matter-of-factly about the offensive caricatures. "[But] I consider myself preserving history." A single mom who works in the airline industry, Mundy says that she wants to make sure her children and grandchildren know what their ancestors had to put up with. What they overcame.

"I want my grandchildren to understand what my grandfather saw," she explains. "I want them to understand what [seeing] this must have been like."

Of course, it's not as if racism has been eradicated. Sure, people don't openly display a watermelon-clutching Topsy, or a fishing lure in the shape of a black man with a pop-out penis longer than his legs, or a tobacco can sporting what Mundy describes as "basically apes in coats." But as Lee tries to emphasize in his new movie, white society still likes its on-stage African Americans to be exaggerated minstrels.

There's no subtlety in the racism conveyed in Mundy's dining-room collection. Some black friends tell her she should be smashing the stuff, not displaying it. White visitors are confused or unsure. Some wonder aloud, like one Jehovah's Witness did, whether Mundy hates white people.

Likewise, Kenneth Goings finds himself confronted with disapproval every once in a while. Years ago he wrote a newspaper story about collecting black memorabilia. "People still remember that," he notes. At the gym in the morning, someone might come up to him: "They'll still express their displeasure. The older they are, the more repelled they feel about the material." "We can't wipe out history by destroying things," Mundy says simply to those who disapprove. Actually, when she surveys her collection, "It gives me such a feeling of empowerment."

It also has led her into some uncomfortable situations. Store owners look at her warily when she asks if they have any African-American stuff and adds, "It doesn't matter how derogatory." Once she spotted a "coloreds only" sign in a shop, and the owner "hesitated showing it to me, probably because he thought I was going to call the NAACP on him." Her search for Ku Klux Klan mementos ("I have an interest in the biblical rationalizations they used," she explains) has gotten her into some hairy situations, like the time when a group of white men followed her out of a secondhand store after she had purchased some KKK buttons. This wasn't in some backwoods country town but in Winter Garden. "That was one of the worst experiences I ever had, and that was right down the street," she notes.

Not only does her collection serve as a reminder of past attitudes in general, but the process of finding and understanding the artifacts has caused her to "become highly educated on American history. Because I had no idea a lot of these things existed." She'll carefully tell the story of how Scopes Trial lawyer Clarence Darrow in 1926 defended a black couple who moved into a white subdivision, and point out how racy-looking women graced the pages of 1940s issues of "Ebony," and explain how ex-slaves who colonized Liberia in the mid-19th century wrote heartbreaking letters about their hardships in Africa.

For Mundy, the juxtaposition of the demeaning images on the tobacco tins with the impressive accomplishments found in the books, photographs and civil-rights memorabilia teaches a valuable lesson of strength. "This is a lot of negativity," she says, standing in her dining room. "To see 'Poor Lil Mose' in the newspaper -- it had to be horrifying." It's given her greater respect not only for blacks but for "abolitionists, white civil-rights workers, Quakers, people who went against the grain."

She looks around and says, "I think, 'Despite this ... .'"

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