When The Cut producer B.A. Parker was looking to decorate her new apartment, she wanted to buy the film poster for the 1943 movie Cabin in the Sky. Upon revisiting the poster, she realized something about it made her deeply uncomfortable. It was, frankly, racist. So what do we do with the problematic art of the past? Parker speaks to friend and former host of the podcast The Nod, Brittany Luse, and retired banker and racist-memorabilia collector Ed Williams for answers.
To hear more about the problematic pasts of notable artifacts and whether it is best to ignore or reclaim them, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.
AVERY: Hey, the grave of Leonard Bernstein!
AVERY: He is here, yeah.
PARKER: A few weeks ago, The Cut producers — Avery, Jazmín, and myself — went on a field trip to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. We ate rice pudding among the tombstones of Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat. You know, cool goth-girl shit. But the main reason for our trip was to see a statue that’s been on loan there for the past nine years called Civic Virtue.
PARKER: Wow. That is substantial.
JAZMÍN: That is aggressive.
PARKER: Civic Virtue was a statue commissioned in the 1920s for City Hall Park in Manhattan to illustrate “virtue conquering vice.” It just happened to be a nude man with a sword standing on the heads of a bevy of topless women. Even in the 1920s, people were like, “I think this statue is a little sexist.”
JAZMÍN: How is this different from Adam and Eve? And we still fuck with that.
AVERY: Okay, but I think the difference is that this is a public statue maintained with public funds. And if you want to have sexist imagery in some museum, cool, they can pay for it. But the idea that our tax dollars go to maintain this thing …
PARKER: Wait, we’re paying for that?
PARKER: Don’t worry, the statue only cost taxpayers like $100,000. Then moving the statue around ended up costing around $300,000. Misogyny can be pricey.
There’s an extensive plaque in front of the statue that tries to artistically explain the misogyny:
It was the 1920s!
They’re actually mermaids!
PARKER: But even with a detailed explainer that the defeated female heads aren’t in fact as bad as you think … it’s still a lot upon first view. The statue has lived in a bunch of different places. First stop was City Hall Park, next Kew Gardens in Queens. In each borough, they’ve always hated this thing. Now it lives in the middle of a graveyard in Brooklyn. Is this how we bury the art of our problematic pasts — in a literal graveyard? Even then … it’s still there.
Recently, I moved into my first grown-up apartment — like no-roommates, leave-wet-towels-on-the-floor, dance-to-Janet-Jackson-half-naked-in-my-living-room kind of apartment. I needed artwork. I’d been buying vintage movie posters to hang in my living room. I’d got an original 1973 one-sheet of Robert Redford in The Candidate, where he’s blowing a giant bubblegum bubble in front of an American flag, and a 1997 poster of Halle Berry in the film BAPS with an older white butler carrying her shopping bags through Beverly Hills. I just needed one more poster. Something esoteric enough to quench my film-nerd thirst and highlight an underappreciated Black film from the past. My movie brain immediately went to the all-Black musical Cabin in the Sky, a Vincente Minnelli film from 1943 about an angel and a devil fighting for the soul of a gambler and womanizer named Little Joe. I remember first seeing the film when I was 10 at my Great-aunt Emma’s house.
What I remembered most was seeing Ethel Waters.
ETHEL WATERS [SINGING IN CABIN IN THE SKY]: It seems like happiness is just a thing called Joe / He’s got a smile that makes the lilacs wanna grow.
PARKER: She was this big, beautiful Black woman with the most infectious smile I’d ever seen, singing about her lecherous husband like he was the best thing since sliced bread. I wanted to live inside her smile. With such fond memories, I looked for the theatrical poster. I kinda loved it.
It was a caricature: an exaggerated drawing of a Black man and woman dancing in nightclub attire — the woman in red, the man in teal. The woman has thick black hair and a bare stomach, her head thrown back as she dances. The man is slightly crouched down in a big, baggy coat, long fingers peeking out under the sleeves. Very Jazz Age. And above and below them were an angel and a devil. It was striking. It was inventive. It matched my couch. All wins!
But, there was something about it that felt like it might be off. I wasn’t sure. Because Black imagery is complicated. Context is always key — the “for whom and by whom” of it all. I’ve been to Black friends’ houses and seen jet-black figurines and felt that twinge of, I don’t know about this. And so this Cabin in the Sky poster felt like it was toeing a line. So I texted some friends. Some were like, “Nah, this isn’t bad.” Others were like, “No this is definitely cringey.”
BRITTANY: It’s an interesting decorative object. When you sent it, I looked at it, and I was like [loud sigh]. I could see why you would want to buy it.
PARKER: I sent the image of the poster to my friend and fellow podcaster Brittany Luse, former host of The Nod, a podcast that was about all aspects of Black culture.
BRITTANY: As soon as my eyes go straight to the full red lips on the central figure’s Black skin, my eyes go to every other figure on the page.
PARKER: And honestly, it’s not great.
BRITTANY: You see this angel-general figure with the very typical Sambo face: the bulging eyes, the Black skin, the gigantic red lips meant to seem comical in some way, shape, or form.
PARKER: Okay, she’s making it sound bad … because it is bad. The angel and the devil both have huge white round eyes and very red lips on very dark, round faces. Classic blackface stuff. But there could be ways around it. If I put the poster on my wall, maybe that’s reclaiming it: transforming a reminder of trauma or heaviness into something affirming.
BRITTANY: I think it’s interesting for Black people to kind of do their own personal calculus and figure out how they want to engage things like that.
PARKER: White people somehow still don’t seem to do that calculus. It’s not fair. Recently, there was this photo brought up by the New York Times of Grace Coddington from Vogue. And in the picture, she’s standing in her kitchen in front of a collection of obviously racist cookie jars. And she seemed so … carefree.
BRITTANY: Oh, Grace Coddington. Redhead?
PARKER: Yes, yes! As she had all of those mammy cookie jars behind her in the pictures.
BRITTANY: Child, she’s an old British lady. That’s what they do.
PARKER: Oh God. And she seemed so carefree pouring her tea — didn’t even think about it. Do you ever wish you didn’t care so much? Are you just tired of noticing sometimes?
BRITTANY: I don’t think so. I would be more freaked out by myself if I were to really, truly to become fully desensitized. As tiring as it can be to notice things, it would be scarier for me on a spiritual level to become a person who doesn’t notice things.
PARKER: It can be exhausting to always have my problematic radar up. I sometimes wish I didn’t always have to scan a situation first to see if it’s questionable. Even if it’s embedded in who I am. So I force myself to notice the scary thing: the poster of the pitch-black angel with bug eyes and bright-red lips and a halo. I can reconcile that what I thought was exaggerated was just racist. I was actually mad at myself for not noticing sooner. I’ve studied Black cinema; I know its history of racist representation, from The Birth of a Nation to The Jazz Singer to those jive-talking crows in Dumbo.
CROW FROM DUMBO: But we’s all fixin’ to help ya. Ain’t that the truth, boy? You wanna make the elephant fly!
PARKER: I know this stuff. I tend to be sensitive to it. But something about this poster felt different. It’s a piece of history. Why do I wanna hide from it so quickly? What if I not only accepted the problematic thing but confronted it? Just embraced it and hung that admittedly racist poster on my wall? Like putting the statue in the cemetery, you know? Not getting rid of it but recontextualizing it. Making it an artifact to study. I found someone who did exactly that, and it changed his entire world.
PARKER: While I was in the midst of this mental tug-of-war over the movie poster for Cabin in the Sky, I remembered this guy, Ed Williams. He’s a half-Black, half-Chinese retired banker from the South Side of Chicago, and in the 1970s, he and his wife went to an antique store in Indiana.
ED: As I was going out the door, I saw something in a glass counter, a small object, and I took a quick look at it.
PARKER: It was a framed picture on a card: a caricature of a Black man in a white clown costume.
ED: It was an object of a Black man that was just so derogatory that I was just so ashamed, so embarrassed. So I left the store in a hurry because I had chills.
PARKER: But after Ed left the store, he walked around town, and he couldn’t stop thinking about that awful racist image that was just out there in the world for sale. But then …
ED: I went back and I bought it. I bought it at that time so no one else could see it.
PARKER: He goes back to the store that he had fled just moments ago, and he buys that racist card. Just so he could put it in a drawer. Away from anyone to collect or display or carelessly pour tea in front of. Ed started to realize that there was probably a lot of racist memorabilia out there floating around in the world. It’s actually called negrobilia.
ED: I think, initially, it was white people that were collecting the items. But the antique dealers, not knowing how people would react to seeing these really offensive items in their store, would often hide them so as not to offend anyone. But they also knew that these items had a little bit of value. So I learned to ask if there were any Black-related items, and they would tell me, “You could find some back in this corner over there,” or they would rummage around underneath the counter and bring out an item or two.
PARKER: And so Ed kept going out to antique stores on the weekend.
ED: Now I began to see more of this stuff. I wasn’t looking for it. But when your antenna goes up initially, you just begin to see it. Whether it was an “S&P,” as they call it, a salt-and-pepper shaker, plastic items of kitchenware — I continued to buy them, and I’d take them home and put them away.
PARKER: Ed was determined to collect as many racist tchotchkes and trinkets as he could to take them out of commission so no one could ever see them again. His collection expanded to over 4,000 pieces, from slave shackles to firecrackers to shoe-polish containers.
ED: I went from keeping my items in a drawer to going out and actively searching for more. The first phase of this was just the collector in me, the thrill of the hunt. But now with more pieces in the collection, I could see the artistic and creative aspects of much of it.
PARKER: Beautiful? That’s not my first or second thought when I see his blackface-handle cleaning brushes or a Sambo target-practice board. How do you determine what is considered racist or offensive and what is considered tasteful?
ED: Well, if the title of the thing is “N - - - - - hair tobacco,” it’s offensive.
PARKER: Oh, that’ll do it. Yup.
All of this stuff is bad; some of it is complicated. Like negrobilia dolls actually made by Black mothers.
ED: You could almost tell the difference because of the quality of the cloth that was used to make the doll. Instead of burlap, it might be a nice cotton. If Blacks were doing something, they’d have to scrounge or scrap for materials to make their things with.
PARKER: Ed was able to reconcile having such objects in his house because, to him, he could see the beauty in the history. Ed’s hobby had transformed him into a full-blown archivist, navigating time periods and techniques. If there was a particularly damning piece of racist memorabilia, people knew Ed was the guy to give it to.
ED: It reached the point where even though my house was filled with these items that were derogatory, demeaning, and intensely negative, I, over time, began to appreciate the significance and what it represented when I viewed it in its entirety.
PARKER: What does it represent to you?
ED: I began to realize the awesome responsibility that ownership of this stuff had created for me, owning this growing collection of Black memorabilia, and the collection is documented proof of a terrible part of America’s history.
PARKER: Ed could see past the indignity in the things he collected and find the beauty. Racism is an unfortunate yet integral part of Black history, after all. I wondered if I could do the same: get over the queasiness at the sight of the bug eyes and red lips on the Cabin in the Sky poster and rediscover the beauty in its history. Ed was this kinda sweet devil on my shoulder convincing me to buy it, hang it on my wall, treat it like an artifact instead of a statement piece above my couch.
So I tried to research — find the history, the significance. I knew that the poster was made by the famous Broadway cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. So it was already a white artist’s depiction of Black people. This is not boding well. And then there’s the film, with its depictions of Black people not at their finest. However, the writer of the film declared that he’d given the script to the NAACP, who championed the film for “[avoiding] clichés and racial stereotypes.” History and time have told us that’s not totally true. The gambling. The adultery. The shooting. The film is fraught.
But I had my talking points.
I tried to imagine it: getting up every morning and fixing breakfast, sitting at the table, and having my coffee while looking at this poster and choosing to take this mental anthropological leap from horror to reverence until I could finally get acclimated. And then the world would open back up, and friends would come visit my apartment and immediately be taken aback by the casually racist movie poster in my living room, to which I’d try to wave it off: “Oh, no, don’t worry. Yes, this is racist, but it’s history, and it has context. Ignore the big red lips. Can I offer you a scone?”
ED: Being in the home, where there’s a string holder in the kitchen with a derogatory image or the Black lawn jockey out front of these homes — kids grew up seeing these images of Black people as servants with these exaggerated features, or being chicken thieves or immoral and whatnot, so subconsciously, they have this image, this remembrance of Black people shown in that way.
PARKER: And I realized I couldn’t do it. Because I was scared I’d get used to it. It wouldn’t shock or dishearten me anymore. I’d stop noticing it because I’d see it every day with my oatmeal. And then it would be some slippery slope to me not noticing other things. Like the anti-Semitic poster I saw at my local deli that compelled me to find another market. Or when a white pop star’s bronzer is a little too brown. Somehow, having that poster up felt like I was letting a lot of other things in, too.
Ed ended up donating most of his negrobilia collection a few years back to the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, saying it was meant to be studied and given its proper historical context. Plus, his collection got too big. His wife was sick of seeing it.
I ultimately didn’t have as open of a heart as Ed. I didn’t buy the poster for Cabin in the Sky. I went for a safer choice: a reissue poster for the 1978 Black independent film Killer of Sheep. It’s a black-and-white still photograph of four Black boys chilling on the edge of a roof. I don’t have to question if the art is inappropriate because it’s autographed by the filmmaker, Charles Burnett. I don’t have any ethical questions about the film because it’s beloved by filmmakers across the board and the NAACP. But most importantly, it was something I could get used to.
Last summer, Central Park unveiled a monument to Women’s Rights Pioneers. It placed Black abolitionist Sojourner Truth at a table with white suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which in and of itself feels like a hate crime but was just a historical overcorrection that ignored the fact that two publicly racist white suffragists didn’t particularly care for the plight of Black women. So is that what we have to look forward to? Putting the hard truths in a drawer in favor of more historical fanfiction? What do we do with all of the racist, the sexist, the homophobic, the anti-Semitic objects that have flooded our consciousness for so long?
JAZMÍN: I’m just trying to find the path of least resistance here. As we gnaw on this … just blow this shit up. Whatever.
PARKER: As Jazmín, Avery, and myself stood in front of Civic Virtue, we tried to think of possibilities for other statues of its ilk and failed monumentally.
JAZMÍN: What if we make a new category of museum and call it the “Museum of Our Problematic Pasts”? And it’s just full of stuff like that. It’s a place where we can keep it, we can refer back to it, but it’s thematically joined by the fact that it’s problematic. And then you go there to learn about it and then you come out more woke.
AVERY: You know who did that? The Nazis.
PARKER: We’d managed to reimagine the Nazi’s museum of “Degenerate Art.”
JAZMÍN: I might go back on this, but we have this statue. We don’t necessarily want to kill it because it’s of its time, but you don’t really want to keep supporting it publicly because it represents values that are fucked up for the society that we now know. So what if you sell it to somebody who still has those fucked-up values at an exorbitantly expensive price and then use that money to fund a new statue made by someone else that is of a virtue that you now espouse.
So you’ve just recycled that money into something else. And the rich racist can do whatever the fuck he wants with that.
AVERY: That’s exactly the logic of game-park poaching.
PARKER: Game-park poaching: where wealthy people can, you know, murder rhinos in the name of conservation. All of the solutions are terrible. There’s no option that wasn’t censorship or outright lying. It’s never-ending. Everyone’s playing this perpetual game of problematic hot potato. Even this statue is not permanent. It’s on loan. It could just as easily be dropped in the middle of Central Park for our viewing displeasure.
Then, it brought me back to an idea Brittany Luse had about Aunt Jemima. How last summer, when we were in the thick of racial discussions, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima just disappeared. Some companies decided that using Black mascots to sell rice and pancakes was the real enemy.
BRITTANY: There’s something about white people and corporations just being able to use a magic eraser on their past and move forward that bothers me. Maybe I’m intense, but I would love for every box to mention what used to be on there. But I could see myself being a 50-year-old Black woman just trying to work toward retirement, and every time I’m making pancakes for my children, I’m looking at the box like, Do we have to keep talking about this shit again? I can see myself being annoyed with having the explanation on the box.
PARKER: Just a disclaimer: “Here lies something that was incredibly racist for far too long. And we’re sorry.” A disclaimer that’s actually at the beginning of the current distributions of a Cabin in the Sky. A disclaimer that’s heavily written in front of the Civic Virtue statue with shout-outs to World War I, male ass-envy, and second-wave feminism.
A simple “This thing happened. It won’t happen again.”
Although, to be fair, it’s definitely gonna happen again.