Down in history

by Imani Mixon

This summer, I visited an antique mall down in Georgia in search of the kind of jewelry, trinkets and housewares that I could easily pack into my suitcase and adorn my home or body with. The highest compliment I can get from a friend or stranger is, “Where’d you get that?” I love dazzling people with my finds and telling them, with a smile, that they’re thrifted and therefore impossible to track down or recreate.

The antique mall owner and employees were nice enough, but the space itself was hard for me to navigate. Imagine a charmingly cluttered warehouse arranged by era or interest - there are books here, coins there, military uniforms, an assortment of furs, and a couple bins of vintage Playboy and Penthouse. Vinyl, cassette tapes, books, photo albums, and portraits lined each room. 

As I do in any other new, foreign-feeling place, I began searching for the other Black folks, either in representation or in action. While I did not encounter any other Black people in the flesh, I did encounter Black figures - carvings, paintings, and figurines. I saw some disgraced men - a Tiger Woods poster and a magazine with Bill Cosby as the cover star. It’s a shame who gets remembered and what gets forgotten. There were no Black folks in the box of daguerreotypes or postcards I sifted through.

Luckily none of the items were tagged with  the antiquated “negro” moniker and many were marked “African- American”, simply “African”, or presumptively “tropical” or “island” without any mention of the country, region, or true ethnicity. I was back in the land where white is the default and everything else is a distraction, a difference not worth accurately identifying. It made me feel angry and discarded, it made me wonder about the journey these items took to get here and the intention of the buyer and the seller. 

(Photo: 'African Carving')

One question kept ringing in my head, “Where’d you get this?”. 

The most memorable Black woman I saw was a gigantic plaque of Ciara featured on her Goodies album cover, the actual CD and a couple press photos, going for $150. This inanimate encounter made me think of the ways that the living, working, beautiful Black artists I know or admire can possibly impact how they are remembered, talked about, and preserved. It was clear that this Ciara plaque, a gift to one DJ Swisher, was meant to be preserved and to be found. It reminded me of another eponymous artist and my visit to his Paisley Park estate in December 2018.

(Photo: Ciara 'Goodies' Plaque)

Prince’s home was full of tangible proof of his existence - a notebook with the lyrics to Soft and Wet, performance tapes that he’d rewatch like the sly spry athlete he was, a cage of doves, and candles - so many candles, just like the ones he’d always kept burning when he was around. Yes, it felt intrusive to be in his personal space, the part of his life he kept isolated - unless you were invited into it for all-night parties or movie nights up the street. It also felt good to know that he thought his life was important enough to write down, to photograph, to document and share on his own terms. After all, how else will people know what a big deal you are? 

While our own homes may be filled with the kind of media we enjoy and consume, the original work we create is largely documented and shared digitally. Chunky photo albums replaced by Instagram feeds, record collections superseded by streaming platforms. The coolest art tech trend right now is NFTs, the uber digital way to create, share, own and monetize art. We are moving further and further away from physical proof of our existence. With every visit to an antique mall or another hallowed culture-filled place, I am reminded that physical proof and civic documentation were tools of the oppressor. It was (and sometimes still is) a privilege to have IDs, certificates, or even money of our own. But these same methods of recording one’s existence can also be utilised for the purpose of legacy, connecting our future generations to their heritage through self-perpetuated, self-governed and self-maintained, physical documentation. 

As we dream up what this season will be, I’m inviting you to write down what you did and didn’t do. I urge you to gather all the art or work you made this year. To print all of your favorite pictures and label them with names, dates and locations. To burn your own work onto a CD, USB, or DVD. To gather it all together in a container - a folder, a Nike shoe box or a Telfar dust bag. So that when it’s found, they can find you and know what a big deal we all were.