My Parents, the Propaganda Dealers
When my Black parents decided to sell racist memorabilia online, they saw it not as exploitation, but as the achievement of the American dream
I grew up around racist memorabilia from the Jim Crow era. It was sort of the family business.
Both of my parents are Black, but I was raised to approximate whiteness. My immigrant mother taught herself English watching soap operas and worked multiple shifts at the most American of places, McDonald’s. Just a year before my birth, in 1987, my mother was a night-shift line cook at the Fort Lauderdale Beach McDonald’s, where she met my father, a former Marine turned beachfront security guard. They got married, had me and my brother, raised us to be bright, articulate, and clean, then set to achieving the American dream in the most American of ways: profiting off of the exploitation and dehumanization of Black Americans.
In December 1997, my parents incorporated their book business, pivoting away from in-person book fairs for sales in favor of a digital storefront — the first of its kind on the shiny new internet. The early internet was one of message boards, and as such, collectors and sellers connected via boards, using short text posts to describe what was being sold and how much for. My father, who had studied computer science and specialized in communications in the military, recognized immediately the disadvantage of being a Black bookseller in a majority white industry. I never really asked my dad how he felt about the family business until a few weeks ago, during one of our weekly quarantine “downloads” over the phone.
“You know, I got tired of seeing your mom disappointed after those fairs,” he told me of their decision to pivot to the internet. “White people would come to the booth and give all the signals of a sale but never bought a damn thing. I got tired of having to lug all our stock back home after no sales, so I decided we would make an online store with pictures — there were only databases for books and antiques, no one was selling online with photographs yet, but we were.”
Suddenly, our three-bedroom apartment held utilitarian, banal, and grotesque objects.
The risk was a necessary one: If my parents were going to provide a living for their children, they would have to get as close to whiteness as you could as a Black person, and that often translates to anonymity. The only place you could be fully anonymous, at that time, was on the internet, so my dad took coding classes at night school and began coding a website for the family business, Notts Old and Rare Books.
Collecting was a proto-fandom: like-minded internet users with a shared commonality, be it books or racism. Adjacent to the collecting fandom was the racist memorabilia fandom — the “dark” side of the collecting community. Like any group of effective racists, their ISOs (in search of) dominated the boards, which then affected the worth of these items in the book and antique selling guides, creating a demand that required fulfillment.
Suddenly, our three-bedroom apartment held utilitarian, banal, and grotesque objects — postcards, mugs, cookie jars, coin banks, food and drink advertisements.
I was about 11 when I first saw a n****r. I wasn’t sure how else to describe the cherry-red-lipped, gaping-open-mouthed, wild-eyed cast iron coin “jar” I was wrapping in tissue paper. It was undeniably clear to me that whatever that was, it was not Black.
I was in middle school the first time I saw an “alligator bait” postcard — sent from one white person to another, on the occasion of a birthday. My parents had it to sell in their online store. Painted in delicate watercolor were a trio of Black children in a marsh, caricatured as pickaninnies toddling toward watermelon, while an alligator lurks behind, mouth opened toward the exposed buttocks of children. Sent as a birthday greeting.
I ate homemade chocolate chip cookies from a Mammy jar, shoving my hands into the open mouth of a deformed Black face, crowned in a red handkerchief. I thumbed through a few copies of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers and equally, for my allowance, packed for shipping books like Woodrow Wilson’s revisionist history project, A History of the American People; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; first editions of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman (on which the first American motion picture to be shown in the White House, Birth of a Nation, is based).
When you live with history, you are always reminded it’s never as far in the past as you’d like to think.
As I’m connecting these dots for my father today, he confirms what I’m trying to get at with these connections: “We definitely sold to racists. Based on the purchases alone, you can figure out where someone’s head is. It’s pretty clear our biggest customers were racists, supremacists,” he said. The objects and books my mother had such a keen sense of locating contributed directly to the indoctrination of the white children whose racist families used these books and objects to illustrate the presumed inferiority of Black people.
Equally, these objects contributed to my thinking that I was somehow set apart from the Black people around me. I generally was not encouraged by my mother to have many Black friends. So much of my world was dictated to me by my immigrant family, whom I spent the most time around as a child and who said all manner of heinous things about Black people, as if they weren’t themselves Black. I was confused often about who I was supposed to show allegiance to: my Black immigrant side or my Black American side.
Coupled with the anti-Blackness I was being taught at home and at school, these objects helped me to understand there were certain desirable ways of being Black that included ideas like speaking “good” English, looking “neat,” and being compliant toward authority — and there were certain undesirable ways of being Black that included being “child-like,” being lazy, looking “dirty” or “unkempt,” and distrusting and challenging authority.
Living with that propaganda made very clear to me as a child that there was something wrong about how I was being taught to view myself as a Black person, even when other Black people were shaping my ideas about my Blackness. I stayed away, with exceptional help from my mother, from any behaviors or style of dress that might mark me as Black. I was put into predominantly white schools where I was taught nothing about American history, let alone Jim Crow, or the propaganda that currently sat in my living room, taunting me.
I knew I was Black, but I didn’t know what to make of my Blackness in a world that was teaching me to hate myself.
The existence, proliferation, protection, and casual ownership of racist books and racist memorabilia — and that includes statues and monuments — act as additional voices to the chorus of malfeasance that is white supremacy.
My Black family aided in maintaining this depravity, because peddling in propaganda meant more money. And in America, money means freedom, or something close to it. My Haitian mother was raised in a caste society dictated by color; growing up my mother would brag about having servants and a personal tailor, going to private Catholic school. On her little island, she had class status. She was already used to the idea that success is predicated on the “necessary” suffering of someone else. For her, the embrace of America’s white supremacist ideology was seamless.
It takes a lot less work indoctrinating someone who has already been primed to receive your message.
It was hard for me to shake how upset these objects made my father, who often expressed moments of frustration around the abundance of propaganda my brother and I were being exposed to. “I tried to be as far away from that shit as I could,” he told me. “I knew we could make money selling other things, but your mother didn’t see that.”
Like any good American success story, my parents used the blood money from selling propaganda to build us a home but, after 9/11, the targets of racist obsession shifted away from Black people to Muslims. So white collectors decided to go back to what they knew best: paying other white people exclusively to procure the racist propaganda they desired.
The business couldn’t survive if we weren’t willing to pivot toward xenophobia and Islamophobia, so the business didn’t survive.
Like any object of taboo, I felt that these objects were imbued with a spirit that wasn’t kind or innocent. There was a directness in the way these objects made me feel uncomfortable, a boldness. I was meant to feel diminished and ridiculed and less than around statuettes with comically exaggerated cherry-red lips or bulbous, protruding eyes. Necessary historical context around the Jim Crow era was not taught to me at school at any point. Being denied this information while actively being told that lynching was not common during that era, or that Black people actually preferred being treated like second-class citizens, made me think that things back then just weren’t as bad as they were portrayed in movies and books.
I was indoctrinated into thinking racist violence wasn’t widespread, that “nice” white people did not like racist behavior nor did they participate in it. I was taught that the racist violence against Black people was committed only by shunned and publicly reviled racists, people who were often caricatured as poor, as ignorant, as “backward.”
I was, in this way, indoctrinated — into thinking that racism was an old problem, so the family business was no problem at all, if all we peddled was nostalgia.
The word “propaganda” usually conjures up thoughts of film reels and posters. But propaganda is simply manipulation. A cookie jar, matchbook, or coin bank can be as effective (or powerful) as a poster, a sound bite, or a tweet. This mundane propaganda is persistent, echoed in all aspects of life, working to condition us toward dehumanization the way water does to smooth the rough edges of a mountain over centuries — slow, sustained trickles, each drop contributing to the molecular alteration of a form.
Ideology works on the mind, is passed down generationally, and is maintained by propaganda — revisionist history, pseudoscience conspiracy theories, myth, and commemoration. Statues of anti-democratic, supremacist figures leave myth-makers to build tall tales around identity and promote delusion of absolute power over an assumed Other.
Americans did that.
While accountability is not a shared American value, it is a necessary value to the path of liberation so many of us seek.
As a child, I was not accountable for the decisions my parents made on my behalf, but I am a beneficiary of those decisions. Now, as an adult living through a global uprising for Black lives, it is my duty to the human beings I share a society with to name my part in disseminating the fictions and myths we have all for too long considered to be true.
I believe real freedom — liberation — is predicated on our human capacity for free, rational thought, unguided by ideology, so I have to tell you the truth because, for too long, no one told me the truth.