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Jan Faulkner, a retired sociologist, is selling her extensive collection of ``black collectables '' -- distorted images of African Americans on cookie jars, post cards, dolls and household products. She's seen here in her San Francisco apartment, Monday, Jan. 28, 2008, with some of the 2,000 items she's collected over the years. (D. Ross Cameron/The Oakland Tribune)
EMERYVILLE - IN THE 1950s, Jan Faulkner was a student at Lincoln University in Missouri. And while antique shopping near campus with a friend one weekend, she came across the most disturbing image she'd ever seen in her life.

In a box of old cards and papers, she found a picture postcard from 1906 featuring a portrait of a grizzled, gray-haired black man, his exaggerated mouth wide open displaying few teeth and a slack tongue. A hand-written note from the sender read, "I met lots of these."

Faulkner was horrified.

"Growing up in a totally segregated community, I'd never seen stereotypical images of African Americans before, because we didn't do that to ourselves," said Faulkner, a retired sociologist and former professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Oddly enough, Faulkner purchased the offensive card. And although it was painful at first, she soon found herself collecting similar items as a way to sap the strength of the negative images.

This eventually developed into an internationally known collection of more than 2,000 pieces — things such as Darkie brand toothpaste tubes and Mammy cookie jars. She has ashtrays, posters, tobacco tins, dolls, pillows, figurines, salt and pepper shakers, and even children's books from the 1840s to modern times. And from all over the world — not just the American South.

The collection, dubbed "Ethnic Notions," was exhibited in 1982 and 2000 at the Berkeley Arts Center and at a museum in Macon, Ga.


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And it was the subject of an award-winning documentary in 1987.

And now it's all for sale.

"When I retired and moved to this smaller place, I decided I couldn't lug it all around with me anymore," Faulkner said from her apartment in a San Francisco senior community, where she moved from her longtime Berkeley home. "And I thought it was time for someone else to have it."

Items will be sold individually. Faulkner had long hoped the entire collection would be purchased by a university or museum, but she had no success in that direction and decided instead to make pieces available to other historians or collectors.

"We sent letters last year to several black colleges around the country, thinking they might like to take it," said Cynthia Turner, a friend of Faulkner's who is helping organize the sale. "Of course there are space issues, and money issues. But we were surprised that we didn't get one response.

"(The collection) is a hard thing to look at, but it's so much a part of our history."

Indeed, the images reflect an ugly part of the past that many would prefer to sweep under the proverbial rug. Faulkner has been alternately praised and condemned for preserving the items, some critics suggesting the negative imagery — most of which Faulkner said was produced to keep blacks in their place when slavery was abolished after the Civil War — hurts African Americans more than it helps, and should be destroyed.

"Some of our black historians disagree when I call it part of our history," Faulkner said. "They say it's not our history, in that we didn't create it ourselves. But it is something we can't ignore."

Faulkner, who moved to the Bay Area in the late'60s to do graduate work at San Francisco's Mount Zion Hospital, originally hid the pieces away herself. "I would take the pieces home and put them under the bed and never take them out," she said.

But when she was training to become a psychiatric social worker, part of the program required students to go through several therapy sessions for themselves, Faulkner said. And during one of these sessions, her therapist hit on the topic of this "hidden" collection.

"I learned that if I was going to have these things, I would have to learn to live with them," Faulkner said. "So I started getting into the history of it all — what was going on in the world when these things were made, attitudes and world events. Then I began researching who made the pieces. Some were done by renowned folk artists. I reached a place where I could appreciate the artwork and detail in it. 

"Basically, I got behind it all, instead of allowing these images to get in front of me and hold me back," she said. "Also, I would have made myself crazy being angry at it all."

Eventually, Faulkner surrounded herself with the items in her home and began lecturing on the subject. Most of the collection, which will be for sale, has been in storage since she moved to San Francisco, but she continues to display in her apartment some pieces that she doesn't plan to sell.

Earlier this week, Faulkner pulled a tiny box from a shelf and opened it to display a bright pink lining and a small bottle of perfume with a fuzzy black stopper and a little black face.

"This was from a line of perfumes in France called Golliwog, during the Art Deco period," she said. "It was very popular."

From another shelf, she produced a small Bakelite black-faced doll that women would hang from belts or sashes on their dresses during the Flapper era.

One of the most disturbing pieces she owns is a children's alphabet book from Brussels, sold in the early 1840s. Every letter of the alphabet has a black caricature. "F is for Felix, who won' do no work," the book reads. "He's lazy en shif'les en ready to shurk."

"Some of these things are hard to look at for some people," Faulkner said. "When they were on exhibit, I had people coming out actually crying. But when you really examine them and learn about them, you take control."

For more information about the sale, call Jan Faulkner at 415-885-4709.

  • If you go:
  • What: Ethnic Notions sale

    When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 10

    Where: Four Points Sheraton Hotel, 1603 Powell St., Emeryville

    Admission: $5

    More info: (415) 885-4709

    Contact Angela Hill at ahill@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-208-6493. Read her column, Give 'Em Hill, Sundays in Bay Area Living.