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50 Years/50 Collections: Black Stereotypes in Janette Faulkner’s Ethnic Notions Sheet Music Collecti

That is the way I now see Jan Faulkner’s collection. I see our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, captured and forced into images they did not devise, doing hard time for all of us.

–Alice Walker

Autographed cover of “The Dancing Fool” signed by Stepin Fetchit, circa 1929.

At first sight, Janette Faulkner’s collection of sheet music, each with its own illustrative cover, can be eye-catching and repulsive concomitantly. The colors and art work lure viewers into gawking, but the images, represented by caricatures of African Americans, destroy any attempt to enjoy the collection’s aesthetics. Faulkner at one point felt the same way stating, “Understanding caricature as an art form has enabled me to transcend my early days of anger and revulsion and to reach a level of understanding for the pieces acquired.” Transcending any of the material at first glance might be hard for an individual to do, particularly those whom the stereotypical images target.

Faulkner’s collection at the Amistad Research Center represents over 500 pieces of sheet music, accompanied by lyrics, which date from 1852 to 1978, and includes music from African American and non-African American composers in the genres of ragtime, jazz, classical, and musical theater. One of the most popular songs from Ernest Hogan titled, “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” is in the collection. Hogan, an African American rag time performer, helped develop and create the ragtime genre. There is evidence that the music was also used in black face minstrelsy. Many of the performers on the music covers were dressed in black face and, without a doubt, sung the songs while performing in minstrel shows. The collection reveals America’s painful history of denigrating black personhood in popular culture. The music cannot simply be identified as a mockery of African American culture, but as a deliberate mechanism to undermine Black citizenship and equality in a post-Civil War era.

Cover of Ernest Hogan’s ragtime song, “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” circa 1898.

The sheet music was a part of Faulkner’s larger collection, titled Ethnic Notions, which was developed over many years and included thousands of items, each depicting African American stereotypes. The Ethnic Notions Collection was first exhibited at the Berkeley Art Center in 1982 and again in 2000. Faulkner’s collection was so influential in the public sphere that it inspired Marlon Riggs’ 1986 award-winning documentary called Ethnic Notions. The documentary detailed the evolution of stereotypical African American images and their contributions in fueling anti-black prejudice. The art catalogs from both exhibits and the documentary are also housed at the Amistad Research Center, along with the sheet music collection.

Cover of “The Watermelon Trust,” 1906.

Faulkner was a social worker, educator, activist, and noted collector of black memorabilia. It was as an undergraduate student at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, during the 1950s that Faulkner began amassing her collection. She was encouraged by Mary Turner, an antique dealer, who introduced her to collecting. It was on a buying tour with Mary that she found a picture post card of a black man with a mouth exaggerated in width, depth, and color. Afterwards, she began collecting similar items which expanded to include pencils, silver spoons, tobacco jars, books, games, toys, candy tins and post cards. Faulkner’s collection can serve as a powerful tool in understanding the development and consequences of these negative images in popular music.

Images from the Janette Faulkner Ethnic Notions Sheet Music collection. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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