driving through small-town on- tario, it's still possible to come across the figures of black jockeys, lawn ornaments attesting to an unfathomable aesthetic.
The statues, just one representation among many in a genre depicting blacks through romanticizing or demeaning lenses, were still being produced as late as the early 1980s. Generations of blacks have angrily destroyed many of the cruel images, but now they have re-emerged as big-ticket Internet auction items for collectors of what many call "black Americana."
Even the most hideous artifacts have their story. Take the lawn jockey. According to one legend, the first of its kind appeared in George Washington's front yard to honour a young slave, Jocko Graves, whose sacrifice is supposed to have saved the president's life.
It was December 1776, during the American Revolution. While facing disaster, Washington took a desperate chance in attempting to cross the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack. It was darkest night in the dead of winter, and foggy as well.
But Washington had an ace up his sleeve in the form of a brave 12-year-old slave who stood with lantern and blankets in the boat's prow to guide his course.
Of course, Washington did make it across the river, thanks to Jocko's vigilant stand. Regrettably, Jocko did not survive the incident, freezing to death as he stood in place. Washington was so touched by this ultimate sacrifice, the story goes, that he erected a statue of the young boy.
He couldn't have imagined, I suppose, that this would result in the proliferation of nasty garden art, which would eventually find its way north of the border in both original and replica form.
Here, historians have a more empowering take on the statue. According to Elise Harding-Davis, curator of the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre in Amherstburg, near Windsor, lawn jockeys were universally despised by the Canadian black community until the mid 70s. But "having done further research, we found that they were actually based on small children who stood in front of friendly stations on the underground railroad. They carried lanterns to signal a safe stop.
"Many people think of the jockeys as ornaments, something displayed to disrespect black people. But we tell everyone to look behind negative stories like that,' she says. "Once they discover that the jockeys symbolize a positive, courageous part of our history, they can take pride in them.'
Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, agrees that some of these artifacts can become sources of strength. She says people can use them "as a way of reclaiming what is ours. Instead of seeing Aunt Jemima, people see a smart black woman who was doing what she had to do to support her children.'
According to California-based dealer in black Americana Gerald Diggs, one of the primary reasons the once-abundant artifacts, toys and advertising graphics are now scarce is that many of them were bought by wealthy African-Americans in the 1970s and promptly destroyed.
"In my opinion, these things were important to both whites and blacks because they force us to be honest with ourselves about our feelings toward each other," says Diggs, who is black. "The destruction of these derogatory pieces serves to turn a social monster that could be faced honestly into a silhouette that hovers over us all, ever more powerful without challenge.'
One of the more surprising facts about black Americana is that many of the pieces are simply replications of images taken from a select few models. "There are a few stereotypical images that see a lot of use in black Americana -- black supermodels of a sort,' explains Diggs.
"The reason for this is that it was less expensive and just generally easier to replicate the same image over and over again. Also, it helped to strengthen the racist paradigm: these people all look alike, do the same things, etc. From the slave's perspective, modelling for one of these artists was just one more day they didn't have to pick cotton.'
Some of America's most successful companies used black Americana images in the past -- Firestone (Tire Co.), for example, used to be Firestone Plantation, and then there's Aunt Jemima maple syrup.
"People should understand that these images of blacks with exaggerated racial features, such as red-painted full lips and super-dark skin, were commonplace in all areas of American life from about the 1850s up until around 1930,' explains New York City auctioneer Alan Liffman, one of the largest U.S. dealers in black Americana.
"These were some of the most common graphics used in illustrations, in toys, in advertising and such. Blacks of the time were seen by most whites as both comic and servile, so many of these pieces depict blacks being lazy, being chased or chasing something, dancing or stealing chickens or watermelons."
A good example, he says, would be a company advertising apples by painting a large, smiling black face on their crates with the pejorative words "Sure am good!'
"What to us seems prejudice was to earlier Americans just plain good business practice."
What was profitable then is still profitable today, in a way the original distributors may never have intended. Black Americana is big business, say the people who trade in it.
"These items can be obtained all over the Internet," admits antiques dealer David Markarian, who lives near Idyllwild, California. "A lot of black Americana can be found on eBay and other auction Web sites. People who collect these things are either unloading or buying up items.'
Checking the auction site's "code words" brings up hundreds of eBay auctions of these kinds of collectibles.
Because of their rarity, Liffman says, "individual pieces are known to appreciate anywhere from 15 to 25 per cent a year. Americana with racial pejoratives such as "nigger' drawn onto them can fetch even more.'
If black stereotypes were so prevalent in the advertising of yesteryear, why are there so few around today, and where can they be found?
"Most of the bric-a-brac pieces, like the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Remus pottery," relates Liffman, "can be found at yard sales and antique stores across the country.
"Many people are reluctant to put them on display with the other things they have for sale. But when I tell them what I'm looking for, they almost always trudge out something for me to look at. They are embarrassed that they own such things.'
Now that many African-Americans have attained an unparalleled social status, is this the best time for these images to make a comeback? Some prominent members of the African-American community definitely think so.
Filmmaker Spike Lee's recent film Bamboozled features a made-for-TV spoof of blackface minstrels that turns into a ratings gold mine.
There is an interesting connection between Lee's movie and black Americana artifacts. According to Liffman, many of the background pieces used in the filming of Bamboozled were taken from the dealer's personal collection.
It's hard to say what these pockmarks of the past are worth, both in a monetary and a sociological sense. But they are as powerful a part of history as any other document or icon.
As Diggs puts it, "These pieces have a strong energy to them. They force me to be honest about who I am, where I come from and what's outside my front door. They are there to be reconciled with, and that's ultimately why I collect them." *
From the Desert Post with additional reporting by Stephen Wicary