I recently had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans for the very first time. Having grown up in South Florida, the city by the river was intriguing, but not as big a draw for me as the metropolises that grace the Eastern seaboard. Going to New Orleans – with its similar swamps, oppressive torpor, casual appropriation of local Native American culture, and alligator jerky – sounded about as appealing as hanging out with a rowdy, sweaty cousin. However, years of being regaled with tales of every manner of fun that could be had in the Big Easy had intrigued me. NO ONE comes home without an epic anecdote. More than one jaded and well-travelled New Yorker in my circle got that faraway look in their eyes talking about New Orleans. My recent desire to explore the regional diversity of Southern cultures (I blame True Blood) and shake off some one-horse-town dust pretty much sealed the deal. So, with a deep breath and a few mouse clicks, I was ready to go.
And New Orleans didn’t disappoint. From the start, I was smitten: by the architecture, the streetcars, the museums, the sweetness of the regional drawl, the overpriced souvenir shops, the heavenly food, the decidedly French celebration of debauchery, and (sweet merciful McGillicutty!) the take away cup. By the second day of my trip I was calculating moving and living expenses. (Really. I was.) These were the thoughts that danced merrily in my little tourist head as I strolled down Chartres Street on my way from viewing the grounds of the Saint Louis Cathedral. I was feeling better than I had in weeks, maybe even months. So I was most unprepared to meet one resident of New Orleans who I would not soon forget.
This is Nola Mae.
Nola Mae is the “flagship” doll of the Big Lips: “The Better To Kiss You With” New Orleans Doll Company collection by New Orleans-based artist Jamie Hayes. The Big Lips dolls, which are “inspired by Nola Mae”, come in a range of flesh and hair tones. They all feature large round eyes and brightly colored outsized lips, sometimes with teeth. There are brides, grooms and even tux boys. Hayes, who counts Vincent Van Gogh among his influencers, favors unusual designs and exceptionally bright tones and shades in all his work. His unique style lends itself beautifully to just about anything with a Mardi Gras theme. The sense of childlike whimsy evident in the prints almost made me smile.
Inside the gallery
"King Mardi Gras" by Jamie Hayes
"Star Kitty" by Jamie Hayes
To make sure I wasn’t imagining this upsetting showcase of non-malicious racism* I decided to get some outside feedback. I attached a picture of the Nola Mae doll and sent it via IM to a friend who I value for his cool-headed objectivity. His response:
Him: WHAT THE FUCK
Him: Where did you find that at
Me: At a gallery.
Him: was it a Klan gallery
Him: that’s some racist shit
Him: is this something you bought
Me: ROFF! No, an artist here makes them.
Me: And get this: dude is colorblind. So I feel like an ass for feeling like this is kinda really racist.
Me: No, he is. He can’t see color.
Me: It’s really bugging me.
Me: I don’t want to think about it while I’m trying to enjoy my stay here.
Him: knock something out when you get home
Him: DAMN that’s racist
Although I agreed, it would have been facile for me to dismiss some of these works as deliberately racist. I decided that it was a good idea to see what I could learn about the man behind Nola Mae.
Hayes’ simultaneous assertion of color blindness and admission of being “a bit of a fibber” notwithstanding, I do think that subconscious, non-malicious racism is responsible for the more racially troubling visual elements of his work. Hayes, a son of New Orleans, in all likelihood grew up with these images all around him, on products and in advertisements. Hayes may have absorbed – but never bothered to critically examine – these images. So while Hayes genuinely have no clue as to where his inspiration for Nola Mae came from, I think I have some idea.
With her large round eyes, exaggerated lips and beribboned braids, Nola Mae is a textbook example of the classic pickaninny caricature, our very own stateside version of the Golliwogg. There’s even an accompanying children’s book cataloguing her adventures. (I couldn’t bring myself to buy the book, not even for research. Apparently, Nola Mae does three special things in it, and if those things have anyting to do with singing, dancing, or chicken and watermelon, my head will explode. It’s worth noting that, per Hayes himself, Nola Mae came years before the book.) I wasn’t surprised to discover that the Big Lips and Voodoo dolls are best-sellers. I heard more than one coing visitor describe the dolls as “adorable” and ”precious.” An interesting and telling theme that has coalesced around the pickaninny is the idea that these images - grotesque, dehumanized and occasionally sexualized images of Black children - are “cute.” Not offensive, not racist, not disturbing and unwholesome. Cute. Similarly “quaint” and “charming” postcards with images of Mammy, Tom and Rastus litter just about every souvenir shop in the French quarter, and according to one of the store owners I asked, they’re quite popular with tourists.**
The fact that there has been a healthy market for the consumption of these images since their inception almost two centuries ago belies declarations of a “post-racial” modern society. What has emerged instead is a diabolically sophisticated narrative that combines tenets of “color blindness” and “tolerance” with post-racialism. The result: a system of rhetorical gaslighting that permits individuals to indulge in the most blatant kinds of old-school racism while simultaneously denying its existence. Postcards featuring stereotypical depictions of Black women, men and children aren’t racist, toxic and harmful; they’re “cute” and enjoyable, a nice takeaway for nice hard-working folks who probably voted for Obama, and might even have a Black friend.
The more things change…
*I define non-malicious racism as unintentional, subconscious, and/or non-violent racism. This isn’t to suggest that its effects are neutral – they clearly aren’t.
** The owner I spoke with also informed me that, while her store doesn’t carry “lynch” postcards, they are often requested by tourists. Read more about them here.