Interesting Ideas

The racial question

Using crude, often-comic, stereotypes to appropriate blackness for parody, exoticism, local color or other purposes was routine in popular culture through the '50s and later. Considering the Sambo, mammy and pickaninny images so popular with racial appropriators, finding cultural imperialism in bottle-cap figures may not seem like such as leap.

But there is no telling whether some creators had black stereotypes in mind: For every black figure, otherwise identical pieces are painted a different color. Attributing a primitive look to racist imagery is a bit speculative given how minimalist the features are on most of the figures.


If a stereotype is there, a relatively benign one seems more likely, one suggestive, perhaps, of Carmen Miranda and her Latin/Caribbean associations rather than Aunt Jemima. (The bowl usually attached to the head seems clearly to echo Miranda's signature headdress.) Or, as collector Wendy Cohen points out, the model might really be Harry Belafonte and the puffy, ruffled sleeves of his Day-o period. Her explanation: "This is why most of the bottlecappers are black men & woman...they are Jamaican!"

Michael Hall, an artist, collector and scholar, points out that the '50s and '60s witnessed a fixation on the Caribbean, seen as an "exotic, friendly, welcoming place." In his view, the young people who made many of the bottle-cap figures intended them to be tropically flavored pieces welcoming visitors to the house. "It fits the time frame, it fits the imagery and it fits the age group," Hall says.

Still, the exotic look and the air of mystery around the figures allow for all sorts of claims, and a racial angle can be a marketing plus. Dealers occasionally go so far as to sell them as black folk art, an irony Hall finds telling.

"They're sold on these systems of belief, systems of expectations, that are all specious. They're being pawned off as art by anybody but middle-class white kids," he says.

The only thing really exotic about the figures is not likely to be found in the makers, but in the imagery they were appropriating. Their probable origin in Junior Achievement and Boy Scout programs represents, Hall says, "a real sort of glass of cold water in the face to all this mystification that goes on for folk art."

What bottle-cap figures really demonstrate, he says, "is the idea that we are the folk."

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