Can a doll teach or raise consciousness?
According to artist Michael Butler, absolutely. He and his brother, Dr. Martin Butler of Sag Harbor, have amassed a collection of black collectibles, dolls and memorabilia that date as far back as the 1890s.
In commemoration of Black History Month, their collection will be on display at the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor beginning Saturday, Feb. 20.
The ECH Society was founded in 1981 to preserve the history of Sag Harbor’s working-class Eastville community and the St. David AME Zion Church on Eastville Avenue, which was built in 1839 by African Americans and Native Americans.
The exhibit titled, “Black Memorabilia: Images and Icons” features dolls, marionettes, products and statuettes dating from the last century all the way to action figures of today.
Some items are incredibly offensive, showing black figures with exaggerated facial features. Other more recent items from the 1960s and on, including a black Cabbage Patch doll, look like they just came off store shelves today.
The Butlers have been collecting these items for nearly 40 years. Michael Butler, who is African American, said that by purchasing these items he felt that he was somehow buying back black culture.
“I’m hoping this will go to a broader audience to show that African Americans are not afraid of these images any longer,” he said. “They may have been typecast as very negative, but we’re trying to take the power out of that.”
While visitors will find many of the items offensive, Butler believes they have a place in African American, as well as American history.
“These are part of our history, part of how we were portrayed,” he said. “People need to see this starting from the early beginnings to the current. We want as many people as possible to come see this, form their opinions, ask us questions and maybe become a bit more educated about this.”
Georgette Grier-Key, executive director and curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society, concurs.
“Something as simple as a commercial item can really tell the history of this country and how it evolved over time,” she said. “Our job is not to re-write history, but for so long many people would and they would throw these items out because they were ashamed to find out their family members collected them or were involved. Giving that negative power any energy is kind of what we want to de-mystify.”
“Black Memorabilia: Images and Icons” will open to the public beginning Saturday, February 20. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m.
Appointments to view the collection can be made by calling the society at (631) 725-4711 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Eastville Community Historical Society is located at 139 Hampton Street in Sag Harbor.