Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum!”

Disney’s latest film release in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise continues a long standing fascination with pirates and images commonly associated with them – ships, parrots, scenes of debauchery, and the token bottle of rum. While piracy has a rich history, its ever present companion, rum, has a history that connects to colonization, slavery, and the appropriation of African and African American imagery in advertising, evidenced by rum bottle labels from the early twentieth century, part of AARL’s Ephemera collection.

While the Portuguese were the first to corner the market on the European slave trade in the 15th century, it was their Spanish neighbors who introduced African slaves to the Caribbean, or West Indies, at the beginning of the 16th century. During this period, Spanish and Portuguese colonists realized that the climate of the Caribbean proved ideal for sugarcane cultivation, leading to the development of sugar mills throughout the islands. As other European powers began to establish their presence in the Caribbean and North and South America, they too began to exploit imported Africans for slave labor.

According to the Trans-Atlanta Slave Trade Database, the exportation of sugar from the Eastern Caribbean began in 1641. The industry spread quickly to mainland Central and South America. After 1650, sugar had become “king” of the Caribbean, especially in the English, Dutch, and French colonies. The process of converting sugarcane into sugar produces multiple by-products, including cane juice and molasses. Islanders discovered that these products could be used to create crude, cheap liquor – rum. As the alcoholic beverage was refined, its popularity soared in both the New and Old Worlds. At the height of rum’s popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was consumed by seafaring adventurers and common families in Colonial North America alike, and utilized as currency in the transatlantic slave trade. As slavery was abolished throughout the world in the 19th century, rum began its decline along with sugar production. However, the industry remained embedded in the Caribbean economy and consumer imagination.

The labels pictured here are from rum producers located in the Caribbean, with the majority originating from islands under French sovereignty. The featured labels come from rum production in the 1930s and 40s. Earlier product labels depicted sea or island images, including ships or beach scenes. A fascinating topic for further research and examination would be the period when advertisements in the industry shifted to images and stereotypes of people of African descent, a commercial practice that occurred in the United States during the same time period that the pictured rum labels were produced.

In American product advertising, the Aunt Jemima logo (before the 1989 make-over), which is based on the mammy archetype that developed in minstrel shows during the mid-1800s, is perhaps one of the most relatable examples. The archetypal mammy was usually dark skinned, overweight, large breasted and adorned with a head covering – the happy slave of romanticized plantation life born of the white imagination. Despite differences, these labels visually reference the mammy figure. The female characters wear headscarves or wraps, large loop earrings, are mostly darker in complexion, and are smiling. These depictions represent an exoticism and idealism of blackness, specifically female blackness, for white consumers. Like the Aunt Jemima image, those depicted in rum labels represent a historical moment shaped by racism, consumerism, and colonialism – a complex and troubled past documented in this post through ephemera.

(The rum labels that appear are currently unprocessed. For access, please contact the Archives Division. The books mentioned below, used for this post, are available for research at AARL.)

Alderman, Clifford L. Rum, Slaves, and Molasses: The Story of New England’s Triangular Trade. Crowell-Collier Press, 1972.

Kern-Foxworth, Marilyn. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Greenwood Press, 1994.

Manring, M.M. Slave In a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. University of Virginia Press, 1998.

McElya, Micki. Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth Century America. Harvard University Press, 2007.

Thompson, Barbara. Black Womanhood: Images, Icons and Ideologies of the African Body. University of Washington Press, 2008.

Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern-Memory. University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Posted by Nicole Carmolingo, AARL Archives Intern

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Final Touches: Opening a Collection for Use

For an archivist, one of the most satisfying moments before a collection officially opens to researchers is affixing labels to boxes. In terms of the tasks associated with processing, there is no more to do. All arrangement and description is complete. All folders are labeled. All extraneous bits and boxes have a home. Everything is in its final place.

Pictured above, AARL Intern Nicole Carmolingo attaches the last label to the Shirlene Holmes papers, which opens soon, after final revisions are made to the finding aid. Details about the collection will accompany the announcement posted here. For now, Nicole has a deserved happy moment for processing, arranging, and describing 35.19 linear feet of materials comprising 50 boxes and 5 oversize boxes.

Posted by Wesley Chenault, Library Research Associate

Saturday, June 18, 2011

YouTube and Outreach

Thanks to Nicole Carmolingo and Jessica Epstein, two amazing interns at AARL, the Research Library is increasing its Web presence via YouTube.  Take a look.

Posted by Wesley Chenault, Library Research Associate

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

African American Art & Artifacts

Mary Parks Washington, "Progress in Education," 1996, acrylic on wood figures 1 1/4 to 5 3/4 inches

Today’s post is about opportunities the AARL has as a result of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Preservation Assistance Grant. NEH support will enable AARL staff to provide optimum care and access for one its fastest growing collections, Arts and Artifacts (AA), through consultation services provided by two art conservators. The goals of the project, which is currently underway, include:

1.  Assess current conditions of the individual items included in the AA collection.
2.  Obtain recommendations for the care, conservation, and storage of the collection.
3.  Incorporate recommendations in AARL’s renovation and expansion project plans.
4.  Increase awareness and skill level of Archives staff in the identification of conservation needs for artwork on paper.

Pictured above is Progress in Education, a series of nesting dolls in the style of Russian matryoshkas, one of the items examined for the grant. It was created by Mary Parks Washington, a native Atlantan educator and artist, whose work and background have been featured in this blogWashington benefitted from higher education despite the racist policies and practices of her time. Progress in Education shows in visual form the increased opportunities available to African American students following abolition.

Washington’s example follows some aspects of the traditional Russian model; it has five figures, all on the same theme (in this case, people representing stages of African American education after emancipation). It does not feature a woman, as do most traditional matryoshkas. Generally, matryoshkas portray the innermost figure as a small child, infant, or earliest point in a chronological period. Washington’s example matches this, with the smallest doll as a grade school student. As the dolls grow larger in size, they represent achievement of educational degrees with higher esteem (high school, college, master’s level graduate work, and finally doctoral level graduate work).

The work of Washington and other artists in the AA collection is used by patrons for research, as well was AARL staff for educational outreach activities, including exhibitions and donor development. As planning begins for the expansion and renovation of our current building, the conservators’ assessment will help guide architects’ designs for space, housing, and environmental needs of the collection. Furthermore, the assessment will provide direction for the collection's overall growth and care.

Posted by Jessica Epstein, AARL Intern